AGO buys Caillebotte masterpiece at centre of recent years-long export battle

TORONTO — The Art Gallery of Ontario has acquired a French impressionist painting that had been barred from leaving the country because of its "national importance."

Gustave Caillebotte's 1892 masterpiece "Blue Irises, Garden at Petit Gennevilliers," depicts a scene from the French artist's own garden. It will be on display starting Saturday.

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It was purchased with federal help by way of a Heritage Department grant amounting to $540,000, which the AGO acknowledges was almost half of the purchase price. The rest came from two private bequests.

In April, the Federal Court of Appeal upheld a decision by the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board to bar the painting from export to Europe because it was considered to be of "outstanding significance" and "national importance" to Canadian heritage.

The ruling capped a years-long dispute that began when the review board refused to issue an export permit to the Heffel Fine Art Auction House after a buyer bought it for $678,500 in 2016. The decision prevents export for up to six months, providing a window for a Canadian institution or public authority to buy the painting and keep it in the country.

A Heritage Department spokesman says Ottawa assisted in the purchase as part of its mission "to protect our works of art and heritage" and make "it easier to keep works of art in Canada."

"This investment in our culture was essential to stop a work of art of national importance from leaving our country," Simon Ross said Thursday in a statement.

Caillebotte is one of the leading artists of French impressionism and his works are rare in Canada.

The AGO says it's now "the only major public museum in the country" to have and display a work by Caillebotte. The McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton has a Caillebotte oil painting in its collection.

Julian Cox, deputy director and chief curator of the AGO says art works deemed to be of "national importance" cannot be limited to where they originated.

"Interest in Gustave Caillebotte has been growing internationally in the last decade, and his works were a highlight of our Impressionism in the Age of Industry exhibition last winter," Cox said Thursday in an emailed statement.

"The scarcity of his work, and his many contributions to impressionism, make this work a major addition to the AGO's already strong collection of 19th century European art, and allows us to tell a more robust, more exciting history of art."

David Heffel, president of Heffel Fine Art Auction House, said in a statement that "the result is a happy ending to an intricate story, for the enjoyment of Canadians."

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