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Firefighters rescue Riopelle, Pilot paintings from burning Montreal gallery

Jean-Pierre Valentin, owner of Galerie Jean-Pierre Valentin in what is left of his gallery in Montreal, Feb. 2, 2011.

John Morstad for The Globe and Mail/john morstad The Globe and Mail

The firefighters hauled the masterpieces out of the burning building one by one, often with a fire axe in one hand and a Riopelle in the other.

Sometimes, people walking past the gallery helped out. An elderly woman in a long dress coat stumbled on the slippery street clutching her purse and a painting. Soon workers pitched in from the bakery and boutiques all along Sherbrooke Street.

By the end of a couple hours work, they rescued 250 paintings by some of Canada's greatest artists. Among them, several pieces each by Jean-Paul Riopelle, Jean Paul Lemieux, Robert Pilot and Paul-Émile Borduas, works completed at the height of the artists' mastery.

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"It's a miracle, nothing less. They saved an important piece of the artistic heritage of Canada and Quebec," said Jean-Pierre Valentin, owner of the gallery that bears his name on Sherbrooke Street.

"First of all, it's amazing no one was hurt. The fire and police departments did extraordinary jobs, along with my neighbours, people on the street. The firefighters didn't necessarily know art, but they recognized the importance of it. It was amazing."

The fire broke out just before 6 p.m. on Sunday in the apartment on the top floor of the building where the gallery has been selling important works of art since the 1980s. About 120 firefighters went to work quickly on the three-storey building. Some doused flames licking through the roof from the 3rd floor apartment, while others kept the fire from spreading.

Three thousand kilometres away, Mr. Valentin was celebrating his 62nd birthday in Las Vegas, where he was planning to attend two Cirque du Soleil shows.

His telephone rang. It was his alarm company with the news that it had received a fire alert from his boutique on Sherbrooke Street. Moments later, the building owner called to say the top of the 125-year-old stone-clad structure was in flames. Soon Mr. Valentin was trying to guide his landlord and firefighters to the most valuable works over the telephone.

"There was a moment where I was sure we were going to lose a great part of our works, but as time wore on, it became clear they were working a miracle," Mr. Valentin said.

On the ground, the head of the firefighting crew, Pierre Blanchette, concluded there was little threat of injury or damage to surrounding property. But Mr. Blanchette's wife is an art lover, and he recognized the importance of the signatures on those paintings. Riopelle is close to a household name in Quebec.

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"These are guys who don't really know art, but they know now," said Richard Bourdeau, a fire department operations chief.

Firefighters covered the paintings with tarps, but water was already dripping onto them as the temperature sank to -16 C. Mr. Blanchette called in an extra alarm to get 20 more firefighters to help haul them out.

"This isn't something we would normally do, but looking back, I guess it was the right thing. It seems we've helped save part of our heritage," Mr. Blanchette said.

Tarps were laid out in the street and the paintings laid on top of them or leaned against trees. The owner of a nearby property offered garage space, and the paintings were stacked against the walls there.

Mr. Valentin returned to Montreal on the first available flight from Las Vegas. (The Air Canada booking agent worked down the street from his gallery and was giving him updates about the firefighting efforts.) Mr. Valentin called Mr. Blanchette on Wednesday to thank him.

Investigators haven't revealed the exact cause of the fire, which started in the top floor apartment, but they have ruled out arson. The gallery owner hasn't had time to assess the damage fully, but said only a few less-important paintings were missed in the rescue. A handful of the saved paintings have minor water damage. Among the untouched survivors were a rare 1946 watercolour by Riopelle, and three oils by Borduas from 1947 and the 1950s.

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The paintings will be moved on Friday to a secure, climate controlled art warehouse for a full inventory. For now they remain in the garage under 24-hour guard. Mr. Valentin intends to rebuild his gallery, which was founded in 1934 and is among Quebec's oldest.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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