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Beaverbrook Art Gallery's masterworks cover 400 years

Treasures by Dali, Cranach, Turner, Gainsborough, Freud, Lowry, Group of Seven, Carr and more on show at the Audain Art Museum's temporary gallery until September

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A decade ago, a court case engulfed many of the paintings now coming to Whistler in a new show at the Audain Art Museum.

The Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick, had been built by British-Canadian newspaper magnate Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, in 1959, to house 320 paintings he wished to bequeath to his home province.

Aitken was a British MP and close friend of Winston Churchill, and owner of the Daily Express when it was the largest newspaper in the U.K. He was 80 when he pulled together a collection by artists as diverse as Botticelli, Jan Mytens, Hogarth, Delacroix, Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds and Augustus John.

When the Beaverbrook Art Gallery opened, it was called the most important public art collection east of Montreal.

The collection resided in Fredericton for over 40 years until 2004, when Beaverbrook's heirs demanded the return of two paintings — The Fountain of Indolence by J.M.W. Turner and Hotel Bedroom by Lucian Freud. The dispute expanded, with the U.K. Beaverbrook Foundation wanting the return of 78 paintings.

Following arbitration the dispute was finally fully settled in 2014, with the foundation getting 43 paintings back, including two Botticellis. All 43 were sold at auction in 2010.

After this drama, many of the gallery's remaining treasures are now in Whistler, part of a touring exhibition. The Masterworks of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery opens on Saturday, June 18.

The Beaverbrook's executive director Terry Graff says the 75 paintings in the show represent the best of the art gallery's collection of over 3,600 works.

"When I put the show together, I had to pick a number and it seemed to be good. We needed two big transport trucks to move them," Graff says.

"I could have easily doubled the size of the exhibition... but my goal was to select the gems, the crème de la crème.

"I wanted to also tell the story of putting the collection together, who Lord Beaverbrook was. He created this collection and it was a great gift to the people of New Brunswick."

The show has been touring seasonally for three years, being shown throughout Canada and the U.S.

"(Lord Beaverbrook) wanted to do something for the youth, to give them an opportunity to see these treasures, which he felt he was denied while growing up... I would argue he is the greatest visual arts patron Canada has ever seen," Graff says.

He says the spirit and identity of the collection on show at the Audain embraced Canadian, British and Western art.

"Our collection goes back centuries. One of the things in Whistler, which is a nice connector between the two collections... There is a portrait by Augustus John of (Audain Art Museum founder) Michael Audain's mother (Madeleine Stulik) that is part of this show. It just happened to be in our collection. It's pretty neat," Graff says.

The Audain Art Museum's curator, Darrin Martens, says the Whistler museum is the only venue in British Columbia to show the exhibition.

"It provides an interesting complement to our own masterworks collection," Martens says.

"Being able to look at, discuss and think about collectors and museum builders in two different eras... it's an interesting dialogue we can create between these collections. I believe we have exquisite quality with the paintings and sculptures and masks within our collection.

"The echoes of other masterpieces and master artists from the Beaverbrook is here and there are some nice comparisons."

Martens says there will be a panel discussion on July 21 with himself, the museum's founder Michael Audain and collector and philanthropist Bob Rennie called The Art of Philanthropy, Collecting and Museum Building.

The Masterworks exhibition runs until Sunday, Sept. 11.

Admission to the Audain, including the permanent and temporary exhibition, is $18 for ages 17-plus; youth 16 and under are free.

"It's a nice extension of this show," Martens says.

Admission to the panel discussion is part of general admission cost. For more information on the exhibition and panel discussion visit www.audainartmuseum.com.

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