A trove of famous photos remains shuttered in storage
Nova Scotia gallery’s donated Leibowitz collection in limbo over government’s tax concerns
HALIFAX— It was an enormous coup for a small art gallery, scoring 2,070 photos by famed American portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz.
But the donation of the multimilliondollar collection to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia by a Toronto family has been mired in controversy — with allegations that the gift was a potential tax shelter — leaving the images of celebrity and pop culture icons in storage for four years.
On Wednesday the Halifax gallery’s fourth and final application to have a federal board certify the photographs as “cultural property” of outstanding significance was rejected, casting a shadow over the prospects of the gallery holding an exhibition of the photographer’s work.
A gallery spokesperson said the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board has once again concluded that the bulk of the photographs did not meet the criteria for outstanding significance or national importance.
Colin Stinson said the gallery is “extremely disappointed” and disagrees with the federal board’s decision, noting that Leibovitz is one of “the most influential photographers of her time.”
While the board certified Leibovitz’s file collection — a series of snapshots that led to final photographs — it refused to certify the large-scale exhibition-style prints.
The collection includes a portrait of a naked and pregnant Demi Moore, a brooding image of the Queen, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as the Blues Brothers, and the haunting photo of a naked John Lennon and Yoko Ono cuddling on a floor hours before the musician was shot dead in New York in 1980.
Stinson said the gallery’s priority is to display the photography, but without the certification that decision belongs to Leibovitz.
The certification is crucial for tax incentives that encourage private collectors to donate artwork to public institutions that couldn’t otherwise afford it.
Toronto art lawyer Aaron Milrad has said the works were purchased for roughly $4.75 million (U.S.) but have a fair market value closer to $20 million.
He said the federal board got “all hot and heavy about the money part” and failed to recognize the spectacular magnitude of the collection.
The donation by the family of Al and Faye Mintz of Toronto was a colossal score for the gallery, which owned nothing by Leibovitz at the time.
For Leibovitz, who had a financial crisis several years earlier, the transaction meant she earned several million dollars.
Four years later, though, the review board was balking at approving the deduction, partly because it would not accept the $20-million valuation.
An adviser to the board described the arrangement in notes to the tribunal as “a tax grab,” according to the CBC, which first reported on the impasse. That char- acterization was vigorously disputed by Harley Mintz, a Deloitte Canada partner, now retired, who bought the Leibovitz material in 2013.
“We were asked,” Mintz told The New York Times in an email, “to help facilitate a major gift to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia that would provide it with a unique collection of art from one of the world’s most praised photographers and that is exactly what we did. Instead of being celebrated, it has been met with resistance, for reasons that we do not understand.”
The odyssey of Leibovitz’s collection provides a window into the process by which governments work to bolster cultural enrichment by underwriting private donations of art with tax deductions. In Canada, where such deductions receive more government scrutiny than in the U.S., the process can include disputes over the national significance of the art, as well as its value, and sometimes, questions regarding whether a donor’s motives are more philanthropic or opportunistic.
The museum is in the midst of its fourth application to have the collection accepted by the panel, the Cultural Property Export Review Board, which certifies donated works as nationally significant and then determines their value.
The panel has granted such status to only 762 of the prints, at a value of $1.6 million.
In the meantime, the entire collection is in storage and Leibovitz has received only half of the promised $4.75 million. By contract, she does not receive the rest of the money unless the government panel signs off, according to Mintz.
Just how this ambitious, but now stalled, art initiative was born remains unclear. Leibovitz, through her gallery, declined to comment. The museum said through a spokesperson that it did not come up with the idea. And Mintz said only that he was approached by “knowledgeable art-world figures” after the idea for such a gift arose.
But why would Leibovitz accept $4.75 million for a collection that might be worth some multiple of that? That is one issue that has given Canadian officials pause, though the $20-million valuation is supported by three independent appraisals undertaken by the museum within days of the sale and donation. One of the appraisers, Lucy von Brachel, declined to comment on her valuation, citing the privacy of her clients, but other experts said that the 2,070 Leibovitz pictures could be worth $20 million if they were sold individually over time instead of all at once.
Alan Klinkhoff, a gallery owner in Canada who has been an expert for the Canadian government, agreed that it was conceivable that the Leibovitz photographs could be fairly valued at $20 million. Leibovitz, he said, could have been motivated to accept less because she was able to sell a large number of photographs quickly. “I can’t imagine that you’re going to sell 2,000 Annie Leibovitz prints at whatever her prices are in a shorter period of time,” he said.
A review board spokesperson, citing taxpayer confidentiality, declined to comment on why the entire Leibovitz collection had not met its standard of “outstanding significance and national importance.” But the board said that it typically made those determinations based on factors, including artistic value, esthetic qualities and the work’s association with Canadian history.
Some have wondered why the full collection did not pass muster with the board.
“I’m quite mystified as to why this has not been given the significance that it should have received,” Leo Glavine, Nova Scotia’s culture minister, told the CBC this month. With files from Sopan Deb and Colin Moynihan of The New York Times
“Instead of being celebrated, it has been met with resistance, for reasons that we do not understand.” HARLEY MINTZ
In 2013, Harley Mintz purchased a collection of Annie Leibowitz photos that were donated to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.