Gallery out of options when it decided to sell Chagall, Marc Mayer says

Marc Mayer. Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada

The National Gallery of Canada was out of options when it decided to sell Marc Chagall’s La Tour Eiffel to keep an unnamed national treasure in the country, Marc Mayer says.

The gallery director said, in a hastily organized media scrum in the Great Hall on Wednesday morning, that attempts had been made to get private help and government help to purchase what he called a “tableau” in response to a question in French. But those were fruitless.

“There is a work about to leave Canada that we feel should not leave Canada. It’s more important than the ones we are proposing to sell. We have exhausted all of our options to find other ways to acquire this work, but unfortunately, this is all that we have left.

“It is a sacrifice, we agree, this is a very good Chagall, but this work is more important.” The owner of the work, who approached the gallery a few months ago offering the work. The person wants to be anonymous and wants the work’s title and description secret for the time being, Mayer said. The worth of the Chagall is roughly equivalent to the Canadian piece. The owner also said other museums outside Canada were interested, Mayer added.

In the end, the decision to sell, for the first time ever, a work by a major artist out of the collection was taken, he said. The move has caused a flurry of concerned comment, something that Mayer seemed a bit taken aback by.

The director said the Chagall was purchased in 1956 and for most of its time in the collection, it has remained in storage. The gallery has a more historically important painting by the artist hanging on its walls. He did add that La Tour Eiffel is a “good” painting by the artist, but after a review by the gallery’s curators and consultation with a panel advisors, all with PhD’s in art history, he stressed, the decision was taken to put the Chagall up for sale because it had the potential to pull in the amount needed to buy the Canadian work. The Chagall is expected to fetch between $6 and $9 million US when it is auctioned by Christie’s in New York on May 15.


Marc Chagall. The Eiffel Tower, 1929. Oil on canvas, 100 x 81.8 cm. National Gallery of Canada. Photo: NGC

The sale does bring into sharp focus the gallery’s $8 million CDN acquisition fund which is, he says, the largest such budget in the country. Mayer said that the purchase of the unnamed work would have easily exceeded that amount. The acquisition fund was set at $8 million about “16 or 17” years ago. It is used to purchase works for the different departments in the institution from photography to Indigenous works. In the meantime the value of art for sale in the international art market, including for Canadian art, has soared. In fact a work by Lawren Harris called Mountain Forms recently sold for $11.21 million, making it the most expensive piece of Canadian art ever. The previous record was attached to a portrait by Paul Kane, which fetched $5 million in 2002.

There are other works also being moved out of the collection, he said.

“The other eight works have been in storage for decades so that doesn’t make very much sense. We should really be benefiting the collection for those things that we have a context for.”

The gallery was contacted about the potential sale of the unnamed piece of art which is not being sold at auction and, Mayer said, is guaranteed to be sold to the National Gallery if the price can be met.

He says he hopes this won’t happen again. “We want all of the major works in Canada to stay here. I’m not anticipating a whole raft of art treasures leaving this museum.”

The gallery has the ability under the Museums Act to sell off, transfer or in other ways move out works of art to improve its collection. This is called deaccessioning in the art world and it can be controversial.

The gallery has a policy that tells how the deaccessioning happens. The gallery follows the same procedure as it would when buying a work. The gallery consults outside advisors. The gallery curators also make a recommendation. The opinions go to the board of directors with recommended decisions.

To those expressing concern about the sale of the Chagall, Mayer says, “Yes, we have to make hard decisions in life and this is a hard decision. And we think we are making the right decision.”

The gallery does not normally talk about the value of the work in its collection. This has happened in this case because the auction house has announced a value.

The gallery has deaccessioned other works such as through transfers to other galleries or back to the owners, or returning art to a rightful owner as has happened with art stolen by the Nazis in the Second World War or sold illegally. Mayer mentioned a piece returned to China that had been taken from an excavation site.

Some of the other eight smaller works are being transferred, three are going to be sold, he said, but no date on that sale yet, he says.

Mayer says he has asked his curators to take a closer look at the collection and think about pieces, stuck in storage which is expensive, that can be moved along.

“We are studying the collection to see that we are not storing things that nobody wants to see and that we don’t want to show. And that could benefit the collection by helping acquire works people do want to see.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.