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E.J. Hughes paintings going to Audain Art Museum in Whistler

10/07/2014 08:30 EDT | Updated 12/07/2014 05:59 EST
Vancouver art collectors Jacques Barbeau and Marguerite Owen are sending 15 of the best paintings from their collection of 80 original works by late B.C. artist E.J. Hughes to a museum opening next year in Whistler.

The works will be on permanent public display in a space to be named the Barbeau-Owen Gallery at the Audain Art Museum, which is currently under construction.

Barbeau, who says he loves all of the paintings, bought his first E.J. Hughes in 1964 after seeing one reproduced on the cover of a B.C. phone book. The price tag was $400, which he began paying in instalments over six months.

He said what appealed to him about that Hughes work, and the next 79 he bought, was their sheer beauty.

"On a November day, it could have been raining for a month, and you look at these paintings and it cheers you up and you have a smile," he told CBC News.

Over the years, as he became more successful as a lawyer, Hughes became more successful as an artist — and the price of the paintings reflected that.

One painting showing a steamship in Grenville Channel cost him around $50,000 — Barbeau remembers having to break the news of what he just spent to his wife. Today, he estimates that same piece is worth $700,000 to $1.4 million.

Over time, the artist and the lawyer who loved his work became good friends. Barbeau said it was something Hughes would repeat that really drove him to the decision to put the works where the public can see them.

"He said that to me often, 'my art is my bequest to British Columbia,'" Barbeau said. "He was very strong on that, [that] this belongs to the people — the inference being that maybe there was a better place than the walls of our living room."

"As soon as I saw the sketch of the Audain museum at Whistler, I thought this is it," he said.

So, he contacted the museum and told them that if they had the room, they could choose their favourites from his collection. The museum's curators were pleased to oblige.

Barbeau says he's confident his old friend, who died in 2007, would approve.

"I think that EJ Hughes is smiling on us as we speak," he said.

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