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Canada Debates Whether Gift of Leibovitz Photos Is Also a Tax Dodge

An adviser to the government panel described the arrangement in notes to the tribunal as “a tax grab,” according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, or CBC, which first reported on the impasse. That characterization was vigorously disputed by Harley Mintz, the Deloitte Canada partner, now retired, who bought the Leibovitz material in 2013.

“We were asked,” Mr. Mintz said 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 Ms. 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 United States, 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 Canadian 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 Ms. 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 Mr. Mintz.

Just how this ambitious, but now stalled, art initiative was born remains unclear. Ms. Leibovitz, through her gallery, declined to comment. The museum said through a spokesman that it did not come up with the idea. And Mr. Mintz said only that he was approached by “knowledgeable art-world figures” after the idea for such a gift had been hatched.

He declined to say who that was, citing a confidentiality agreement.

Actually, Mr. Mintz was the second businessman to consider buying the collection for the museum. The first, Larry Rossy — the founder of Dollarama, a Canadian discount retail chain — dropped out in 2012 after beginning the process of applying for a tax shelter approval, according to the CBC. He declined to comment on why he withdrew.

Mr. Mintz, who said he was approached about the gift a few weeks later, said the opportunity attracted him because his mother had been a big fan of Ms. Leibovitz.

At the time of the gift, he said Ms. Leibovitz preferred that this collection — which includes prints of her Rolling Stone cover of Yoko Ono and John Lennon and images of the Blues Brothers — go to a smaller museum. “She felt it would have a greater impact than in a large, established institution,” Mr. Mintz told The Toronto Star in 2013.


A portrait by Ms. Leibovitz of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as the Blues Brothers.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

But why would she 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 served as an expert for the Canadian government, agreed that it was conceivable that the Leibovitz photographs could be fairly valued at $20 million. Ms. Leibovitz, he said, could have been motivated to accept less because she was able to sell such 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 Leibovitz portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

A review board spokesman, 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 numerous factors, including artistic value, aesthetic qualities and the work’s association with Canadian history.

Some have wondered why the full collection didn’t 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.

For the museum, the Leibovitz collection was supposed to be a triumph that would cement Halifax as a premiere cultural destination in Canada. Instead, it has become a headache. Museum officials have suggested that Ms. Leibovitz must give the green light for any exhibition of the works to go ahead.

“I know that Nova Scotians and Art Gallery of Nova Scotia visitors are eager and excited to see this collection,” the museum’s director, Nancy Noble said in an email. “I know the results of previous applications — and the length of time it has taken — has been frustrating for the artist, the donor and, most importantly, for Nova Scotians.”

But still, Ms. Noble expressed hope that the board would come through on the fourth try. A decision is expected by the fall.

“Our priority is to share the work of this iconic and celebrated artist — in our gallery and across the country,” Ms. Noble added.

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