Letter from Virgil Hammock, President emeritus, and interim President, AICA-Canada regarding the sale of Marc Chagall’s La tour Eiffel by the National Gallery of Canada.
My old friend, the late Dr. Jean Sutherland Boggs, former director of the National Gallery of Canada, would be spinning in her grave if she knew that her beloved gallery was selling off a 20th-century European masterpiece for the option of buying an, as yet un-named, work “ … more significant to Canadians.”. At least, that is what current gallery director, Mr. Marc Mayer, believes. At the moment this sounds more like a baseball or hockey trade deal than the accessions policy of a public art gallery. (Joe Blow for as yet two unnamed players.) The deal to sell Marc Chagall’s painting La Tour Eiffel only became public after the work was illustrated in a Christie’s catalogue for a May 15th auction in New York. It is listed to bring an estimated 8 to 11 million Canadian Dollars, but could go for considerably more as Chagall’s prices are at record highs.
It appears that the National Gallery has an over supply of Chagalls—two to be exact; La Tour Eiffel and the smaller Memories of Childhood. We are assured that Memories of Childhood is a better painting from an earlier period, 1924 as opposed to 1929. I do not agree. The later painting is a much more interesting and important work, but Memories of Childhood could not be easily deaccessioned under the gallery’s current policies so La Tour Eiffel was up for grabs. I believe there is only one other Chagall painting, at the AGO, in a public collection in Canada. Chagall is an important and reasonably popular artist as attested by the Chagall and Music exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts last year that attracted over half a million viewers.
Mr. Mayer has stated that the La Tour Eiffel has spent about as much time in storage as on the walls. Usually about ninety percent of major public art galleries’s collections are in storage at any given time. Public galleries are places for research and are the storehouses of visual history. Public galleries are akin to libraries. In a real public library you don’t sell the books if they are not always taken out and it is possible to have two titles in a collection by the same author.
I would like to think that the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board has done its proper job in this case. But it appears that horse has already left the stable and it is a done deal as, it is my understanding, the La Tour Eiffel is already on display at Christie’s Hong Kong auction house. I believe there will be a New York review in April of the work in their New York house prior to the May sale. Following the sale, the painting might disappear from public view forever.
Mr. Mayer said in an interview on the CBC radio program The House this Saturday: “We need some money fast.” So do we all. Of course, I could be wrong and the National Gallery mystery work, or works, could be the best thing since sliced bread. Might I suggest that this might not be the best way to do it.
Virgil Hammock, Professor emeritus of fine arts, Mount Allison University; President emeritus, and interim President, Canadian Section, International Association of Art Critics (AICA).