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J.M.W. Turner oil may leave Canada in U.S. sale

Turner’s An Open Sea View with an Indiaman and Two Fishing Boats is a small oil painting, just 31.8 by 45.5 centimetres.

A small, moody painting by the English master J.M.W. Turner that's been in private hands in Canada for almost a century has had its planned export to the United States delayed until early next year. The painter's owner is hoping to sell it there, either by auction or privately.

Meeting last month, the 10 members of the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board agreed to a four-month stay on removing An Open Sea View with an Indiaman and Two Fishing Boats from the country to give a Canadian institution the chance to purchase it. The application for the export permit estimates the work's "presale auction" value at $1.5-million to $3-million (U.S.).

Small though An Open Sea View is (an oil on panel just 31.8 by 45.5 centimetres), its estimated worth is a measure of the esteem Turner works hold in the marketplace, regardless of size. Three years ago, Las Vegas casino impresario/resort developer Steve Wynn set the extant world record for a Turner sold at auction by paying Christie's New York almost $40-million (U.S.) for a large canvas, Giudecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio . Insurers of last year's exhibition of Turners at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art placed a value of $100-million on several of the works displayed.

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Federal legislation enables Canada's cultural review board, created in 1977, to hold back an art work or cultural artifact of "outstanding significance and national importance" (one with a fair market value in excess of $30,000 that has been in Canada for more than 35 years) for between two to six months. In the case of the Turner, the delay period ends Feb. 15 next year.

Turner paintings are rare in both public and private collections in Canada, although it's known that Torontonian David Thomson, chair of Thomson Reuters, has several by the artist, who died at 76 in 1851. Painted around 1802, An Open SeaView has been in Canada since 1912 as the property of businessman Sir Herbert Holt, "probably the most reviled and detested man of his time in Montreal," in the words of David Silcox, president of Sotheby's Canada.

Sotheby's is handling the Turner on behalf of a Toronto-based descendant of Sir Herbert, with the intention of exporting it to Sotheby's New York for eventual auction or private sale.

How Sir Herbert came to own the Turner is something of a mystery because "he was not a collector," Silcox said. Knighted in 1915, he'd come to Montreal in the mid-1870s from his native Ireland and eventually extended his reach into virtually all aspects of the Quebec and Canadian economy - gas, hydroelectricity, banking and trusts, steel manufacture, automobiles, pulp and paper, railways, flour mills and insurance. As the Depression neared its end, he famously remarked: "If I am rich and powerful, while you are suffering the stranglehold of poverty and the humiliation of social assistance; if I was able, at the peak of the Depression, to make 150 per cent profits each year, it is foolishness on your part. As for me, it is the fruit of a wise administration."

Sir Herbert died in 1941 at 85, the richest man in Canada. "When … they announced at a baseball game in Montreal that he'd died, everybody cheered," noted Silcox.

It remains to be seen if any Canadian institution has the interest or financial wherewithal (either through its acquisition budget or a generous patron) to keep An Open Sea View in the country. While the Movable Cultural Property Directorate has a fund to help would-be Canadian purchasers, its total given pool in any given year is only about $1.2 million. Moreover, to trigger assistance from this fund, the institution is expected to raise on its own or in collaboration with other organizations at least 50 per cent of the "fair cash offer" needed to acquire the artifact.

Parties interested in buying the Turner have until Jan. 15 to ask the review board to determine what it thinks is a "fair cash offer." (This usually occurs after the interested institution has made an offer to buy and been refused.) If no institution has made a legitimate offer to buy by Feb. 15 next year, the export permit will be granted and An Open Sea View shipped to New York.

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Sotheby's Canada argued before the review board last month that An Open Sea View should be permitted to leave Canada without delay "because it's really Turner before he was Turner," as Silcox put it. Done, that is, before the artist's mature period, roughly 1820 onwards. "My colleagues who deal with these 19th-century paintings a lot say it's really suitable for a private collection and not very suitable for a public one," Silcox said.

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