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Financial agreement over Chagall sale, National Gallery of Canada and Christie’s issue statement

The Eiffel Tower, 1929 Oil on canvas, 100 x 81.8 cm National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/National Gallery of Canada

Ending their two-week silence regarding the controversy surrounding the aborted sale of Marc Chagall’s La Tour Eiffel, the National Gallery of Canada, the painting’s owner, and Christie’s, the New York auction house that was to have sold it next week, announced an agreement Thursday morning to withdraw the painting from the auction.

The one-paragraph joint statement noted that “a mutually satisfactory financial agreement has been reached, which is not at the expense of the National Gallery of Canada.” In recent weeks, there has been speculation that the gallery would have faced a seven-figure cancellation fee for removing the Chagall painting from the May 15 auction.

“We are now working together on next steps to return the painting to the Gallery. Both parties look forward to continuing their long-standing relationship,” says the statement.

For much of last month, National Gallery director and CEO Marc Mayer championed the sale of the Chagall painting, for as much as an estimated $9 million US.

The goal of the sale was to raise funds to purchase the painting Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgement by Jacques-Louis David, which is owned by the Notre-Dame-de-Québec parish corporation in Quebec City, and which Mayer had said was at risk of leaving Canada if the parish corporation sold it to a foreign buyer.

It emerged in mid-April that two museums in Quebec were also interested in acquiring the David painting, collaborating with the National Gallery if need be. Then, Mayer dismissed a joint venture, which he said could have treated the David painting like the child of divorced parents, shuttling from one museum’s custody to another. 

An open letter on April 23 from Mayer and Françoise Lyon, chair of the gallery’s board of trustees, softened the gallery’s position regarding the Quebec museums. The letter also said the sale of the Chagall painting would proceed to “support the possible acquisition” of the David painting, and to bolster the gallery’s “ability to acquire major works of art.”

But also on that day, Quebec’s Minister of Culture effectively blocked the National Gallery from acquiring the David painting by designating it part of Quebec’s heritage, and saying it would remain in that province.

Then, on April 26, another open letter from the gallery announced the board’s decision to call off the sale of the Chagall painting, since the David painting was no longer in danger of leaving Canada. That letter, which was unsigned, noted “the passionate views” of Canadians on the matter, likely referring to public outcry that included two petitions calling for the Chagall painting, one of two by the late Russian-French painter, to remain in the gallery’s collection.

After that announcement, it was unclear what Christie’s move would be in response to the board’s withdrawal of the painting, and whether the gallery would be penalized for the withdrawal.


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