National Gallery issues open letter explaining its bid to purchase a David and sell a Chagall

In an unusual open letter, the National Gallery says its bid to purchase the Jacques-Louis David painting Saint Jerome Hearing the Trumpet of the Last Judgment is in no way intended “to pre-empt efforts by museums in Quebec to purchase the work.”

This appears to be another effort by the gallery to clear the air over its decision to sell Marc Chagall’s The Eiffel Tower at auction and use the proceeds to purchase the David. The chair of the board of trustees Françoise Lyon and Marc Mayer, the director of the gallery have signed the letter. 

The letter says the events surrounding the sale of the Chagall and the purchase of David have “generated an unusually lively public debate.  The gallery has followed the discourse with care and has heard the passion and interest behind the many comments and letters we have received.” 

The gallery goes on to say that it is not engaged in a bidding war over the David. 

The letter follows a recent decision by Quebec’s minister of culture to seek to have the David painting declared a piece of Quebec heritage. Quebec’s museum of civilization has right of first refusal on the painting which expires June 11.

“The gallery would be pleased if a successful funding strategy can support Quebecers’ wish to assume ownership. We will await the outcome of those efforts before taking any further steps to acquire the picture, in keeping with our commitment to serve the national interest and to preserve this magnificent work of art for Canada.”

The gallery also says it “would welcome developing a long-term loan agreement with museums in Quebec” for the David. It currently hangs in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

The gallery said it has been talking to the owner of the painting for some time and “we were led to believe that, although more than a year had elapsed since the painting was offered for sale, a Quebec institutional buyer seemed unlikely.

“It was at this time that we also learned that Saint Jerome was being offered to foreign institutions. We made it clear to the owner that we would make every effort to keep the picture in Canada and they agreed to grant us more time to raise the funds.

“Our actions were never intended to give ourselves an advantage over Quebec museums, but rather to protect a major work with significance for Canada from leaving the country.”

The letter reiterates that no matter what the Chagall will be sold.

It says the board has reviewed its decision and is convinced it was the right choice.

“We followed proper procedures and have respected the ethical standards of the field. While disposition practices vary among large museums, they are not uncommon in North America as they can yield important benefits to the building of stronger and more useful art collections.”

The letter clarifies three things the sale of the Chagall could lead to:

• Supporting the possible acquisition of David’s Saint Jerome; 

• Establishing a financial safety net to acquire works at risk of leaving the country; 

• And strengthening the gallery’s ability to acquire major works of art, either alone or in partnership with the National Gallery of Canada Foundation.

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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.