NEW YORK—Ending a long-running dispute between the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, and the Beaverbrook Foundation, Surrey, England, concerning the ownership of 133 works of art that had come to the gallery over the years from the foundation of William Maxwell Aitken (1879–1964), a newspaper magnate and the first Lord Beaverbrook, the two sides announced on Sept. 17 that they had reached an out-of-court settlement. Under the agreement, 85 of the artworks will stay in Canada; the remaining 48 will be returned to the foundation.
At the heart of the dispute was the question of which entity had title to the Beaverbrook art collection. The Beaverbrook Foundation claimed that the artworks were on loan, “recallable by demand,” while the art gallery viewed them as outright gifts.
Of particular note in the dispute were two paintings, The Fountain of Indolence, 1834, an oil on canvas by J.M.W. Turner, and Hotel Bedroom, 1954, an oil by Lucian Freud, which are among the most renowned pieces in the gallery and jointly estimated to be worth $30million. They are both to remain in Canada.
Montreal lawyer Vincent Prager, spokesperson for the Beaverbrook Foundation, claimed that the gallery never owned the two works in question. “For tax purposes, the gallery provides a document to the Foundation every year, stipulating that a number of the paintings in the gallery are on loan from the Beaverbrook Foundation,” he noted. The gallery’s former curator, Stuart Smith, claimed that both Lord Beaverbrook and his son Max Aitken clearly intended the paintings to be on permanent exhibition in New Brunswick, where William Maxwell Aitken was born. (Elevated to the peerage in 1916, Aitken took the name Lord Beaverbrook for a stream near New Brunswick where he had fished as a boy).
The ownership of another 78 works provided by Lord Beaverbrook to the art gallery are still in dispute, but the 133 objects covered by the settlement are considered the most significant.
Bernard Riordan, the director and chief executive officer of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, told ARTnewsletter that the terms of the agreement are being kept confidential, but noted that the years-long legal dispute cost the gallery in excess of $5million. “It was a very expensive process,” he said, “but then you have to look at what we have protected for the people of New Brunswick, and it all seems worthwhile.”
Tensions began rising when the U.K.-based foundation demanded the return of the Turner and the Freud paintings after a 2002 assessment of the gallery by Sotheby’s that found many works in the collection were underinsured, not properly cared for, or, in some cases, never placed on display but kept in storage for decades. Over the years, a number of lawsuits were filed, and both sides agreed to arbitration in 2007.
The arbitrator decided that all items donated to the gallery before 1969 should stay there, while objects donated after 1969 should be returned. The foundation appealed the arbitrator’s decision twice, the second time in the New Brunswick courts, but finally agreed to the arrangement during talks with the gallery last summer. The final settlement was signed on Sept. 15.
Lord Beaverbrook founded the gallery in 1959, and it originally housed his entire collection of art, most of it British. The gallery has subsequently built a larger collection through purchases and donations. It now consists of more than 3,500 pieces and draws just under 30,000 visitors annually. Lord Beaverbrook had never visited an art gallery while growing up in New Brunswick (he moved to England in 1910) and wanted to create a museum for others. Riordan noted that Lord Beaverbrook had purchased these artworks exclusively for the gallery and had never displayed them in his home.