This morning, the Federal Court of Appeal in Ottawa is home to a case unlike any other it has seen before.
At 9:30 a.m., Justice Boivin, Justice Gleason and Justice Rivoalen began weighing the evidence on whether to overturn a prior decision that several Canadian art museums have said deeply degrades their ability to build strong public art collections.
That earlier decision, which the group of museums are challenging along with the Attorney General, was issued in June 2018. At the time it was called “a once-in-a-generation case” by Alex Herman of the Institute for Art and Law in the UK.
In that original, exceptional June case, Heffel Fine Art challenged an export ruling of the Canadian Cultural Property Export and Review Board in court for the first time, and won. But there was immediately a problem for museums: because of the way Canada’s Cultural Property Export and Import Act is structured, the Heffel win also changed interpretation of law that many Canadian museums, since 1977, have been leveraging to snag significant art donations. In the past, museums were able to argue that, under the act, many artworks were of sufficient “national importance” to earn art donors a tax credit based the market value of their donated artwork. Since the June ruling, though, and the earlier judge’s narrower interpretation of “national importance” as having an artwork pertain more directly to Canada, many museums haven’t been able to secure tax receipts for donors for donation of more international or less strictly “Canadian” artworks. Hence fewer art donations—and hence the legal appeal begun this morning.