Jacques-Louis David - Saint Jerome, 1779 (Source: Musée de la civilisation, Notre-Dame-de-Québec Parish Corporation collection)

Museums Clash Over Attempt to Sell a Chagall to Pay for a David

(Bloomberg) -- A museum’s bid to boost its acquisition budget by selling a Marc Chagall painting has sparked a culture clash in Canada, raising an age-old question: Whose art is it anyway?

The National Gallery of Canada is auctioning off the Chagall, worth as much a $9 million, so it can snap up another piece by Jacques-Louis David, being sold for $5 million by a cash-strapped church in Quebec City. The gallery sees it as a last shot at the David and doesn’t mind parting with one of its two Chagalls.

Museums Clash Over Attempt to Sell a Chagall to Pay for a David

But the move sparked outcry, particularly in French-speaking Quebec where history and identity politics loom large. Two museums and a cabinet minister are now vying to keep the David, with Quebec’s government designating it a heritage piece in order to block its exit from the province. They’re also bristling that the National Gallery would ever sell a piece in the first place.

The transaction is caught in a mesh of tensions: museums hard-pressed to keep up in an era of soaring fine-art prices; controversies worldwide over “deaccessions,” or sales from collections; Quebec’s push to preserve its culture in English-dominated Canada; and a church trying keep up with maintenance costs. It’s played out publicly as a high-stakes competition over the past week amid warnings it’s a slippery slope for cultural institutions.

“If tomorrow we decide to sell a Basquiat to compete with another museum that sells a painting from its collection, then where are we going next? That would be using collections as commodities,” said Nathalie Bondil, director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where the David now hangs.

Saint Jerome’s Journey

The 1779 piece, titled “Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment,” was given to the Notre-Dame de Quebec Basilica-Cathedral in the 1920s by two French immigrants, sisters Genevieve and Henriette Cramail. In the 1980s, the church entrusted it to the care of a museum that’s now overseen by the Musee de la Civilisation, which has right of first refusal in the case of a sale.

The piece was loaned to the National Gallery from 1995 to 2013, and was exhibited in a museum at the basilica for its 350th anniversary. “We didn’t want it to stay there long because we realized that if someone had tripped, they would have burst the painting,” said Denis Belanger, the parish priest.

Notre-Dame welcomes more than a million visitors a year and struggles to get by on an annual budget of about C$750,000 ($588,000). It worries about the painting’s condition, and the risk of theft. So it approached three galleries -- the National Gallery in Ottawa, the Montreal fine-arts museum, and the Musee National Des Beaux-Arts in Quebec City -- in 2016 offering the David.

‘Not In Bad Shape’

National Gallery Director Marc Mayer says the painting needs “significant restoration,” while Bondil argues it’s “not in bad shape.” When Bloomberg viewed it on display in a quiet new pavilion last week, it wasn’t attracting crowds. The Quebec institutions fighting to keep it argue it’s a vital piece of heritage as part of a wider collection the sisters donated, showing their attachment to their new homeland.

The National Gallery quietly looked for private donors to fund the purchase, but came up short. It also heard that two foreign museums were approached, prompting it to redouble its efforts because “the risk to Canada of losing this national treasure was real,” the gallery said in a statement. “This would be our last chance to get an artist like this,” Mayer added in an interview.

In December, the gallery’s board agreed to sell one of its two Chagalls, 1929’s “La Tour Eiffel,” and offered to buy the David. Now, the Quebec museum that has first-right-of-refusal is teaming up with the one in Montreal to try and buy it. They’re also willing to work with the National Gallery, but Mayer isn’t interested. “If they’re able to raise the money and keep it in Quebec, then hats off, bravo,” he said, adding he’s surprised at the backlash against his strategy. “I would love to see the drama come out of it, yes.”

Government Intervention

The talks may take a new turn as Quebec’s government intervenes. Culture Minister Marie Montpetit, whose government is just months from a reelection campaign, announced Monday she would designate it as a heritage piece and develop a strategy to protect art of a religious nature in the province. “I am the guardian of Quebec’s heritage. Classifying it helps make sure it stays in Quebec,” she said in an interview last week. Another hurdle is that any sale could require Vatican authorization.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is staying out of it. The Chagall sale is the National Gallery’s choice and on the David, “all parties involved have one objective in mind: to keep the piece in Canada,” Simon Ross, a spokesman for Heritage Minister Melanie Joly, said by email.

If the painting stays in Quebec, Mayer could face criticism. The National Gallery has the Chagall listed for auction in May with Christie’s in New York, with a listed estimated price of between $6 million and $9 million. Were the proceeds not to go toward the David, they would effectively double the gallery’s entire annual procurement budget of C$8 million.

Canada’s museum laws are considered relatively liberal, according to Alexander Herman, assistant director of the U.K.-based Institute of Art and Law. Other major galleries like the Louvre ban deaccession altogether and if the Chagall is sold without a specific reason, the legal footing starts to get “murky,” Herman said.

“Those cause a big uproar. Now we have a national gallery of a major country doing effectively the same thing,” he said by phone from London. It’s “almost like the crescendo of all of these stories.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.