Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird's office is denying reports that his department plans to sell off some of its art collection as it looks for ways to cut costs and raise cash amid overall government belt-tightening.

The Canadian Press reported Monday morning that the department had planned to sell paintings by major Canadian artists such as Jean Paul Riopelle and Paul-Emile Borduas. Documents obtained by CP under the Access to Information Act said the value of the 22 works identified was about $4 million.

According to the report, the department hoped to sell the art to museums and public agencies, at a 30 per cent discount.

However, Baird's office told CTV News Channel's Mercedes Stephenson that the minister has decided not to move forward with his department's recommendation to sell the art.

"They're not saying there were never plans to do it," Stephenson told CTV News Channel. "What they are saying is that the current minister … has decided not to execute these plans."

Some of the paintings have hung in embassies, consulates and official residences around the world since the 1930s, according to the CP report.

While 22 pieces were initially identified, another 140 pieces were flagged for a potential second phase of the sale.

"The DFAIT new business model includes a new approach to the management of the art collection," an assistant deputy minister wrote in September 2010.

"While endorsing the current policy objectives of showcasing emerging and contemporary Canadian art at our Embassies, High Commissions and Official Residences abroad, to ensure risks are managed and to make annual purchases self-sustaining, as well as part of a savings initiative, a selection of pieces from the collection will be offered for sale.

The CP report cited documents from last August that suggested the sale was already well into its planning stages. One memo said all but one of the 22 pieces had been brought to Ottawa and put into storage.

CP reporter Jennifer Ditchburn, who wrote the original story, sent a tweet Monday wondering at what point the sale was cancelled. "And where is (the) art now?" she asked, before linking to one of the documents.

Among the paintings identified in the documents are:

  • A Jean Paul Riopelle oil painting valued at $300,000. It has apparently hung in Washington, D.C. since the 1950s.
  • Two works by Paul-Emile Borduas, an untitled piece and a 1953 work entitled "La Cathedral enguirlandee," which hung in the embassy in Tunisia.
  • A painting by landscape artist Clarence Alphonse Gagnon, valued at $500,000.

The documents show that 494 so-called "high value" pieces owned by the department have a market value of about $18.7 million. The entire collection, which includes donated pieces that will not be sold, has a value of about $35 million.

Memos traded back and forth among department officials suggest some had concerns about a potential sale.

"You know my views about privatizing public goods which I continue to firmly believe and have expressed...," wrote one public servant.

"However, I will also support Deputy decisions as long as they are realistic and do not put the integrity of our programs at risk."

Stephenson said it is still unclear why the government put the brakes on the sale.

"(Baird) is a big supporter of art," she said, "so perhaps he thought there were other places to cut and he wanted to keep this."