American seminary faces opposition to planned sale of portrait of Irish priest

Artist Thomas Eakins’ most famous portrait ‘The Gross Clinic’ was sold for $68m

The portrait of Msgr Patrick J Garvey, dated 1902, by American artist Thomas Eakins

The portrait of Msgr Patrick J Garvey, dated 1902, by American artist Thomas Eakins


In a case with parallels to that of the Jackie Kennedy letters, a Catholic seminary in the United States is facing opposition to its planned sale of a portrait painting of an Irish-American priest.

Earlier this year, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced fundraising plans for the St Charles Borromeo Seminary, in Wynneswood, a suburb of Philadelphia.


Paintings from the seminary were consigned to Christie’s, which was asked to sell them privately rather than at auction.

The consignment includes a portrait, made in 1902, of Msgr Patrick J Garvey, an Irish-American priest, born in Co Armagh.

However members of the extended Garvey family in the US have objected, and called on the church to stop the sale and return the portrait to them.

The family’s legal representative Robert E Goldman, a former US federal prosecutor who worked with the FBI’s art crime team, said the family was claiming ownership of the painting, demanding its return and considering donating it to another institution, possibly in Ireland.

“The archdiocese will not discuss any details re their plans with the Garvey family,” he told The Irish Times, adding that the archdiocese has “refused to meet with us” and “the family wants the painting to go to Armagh”.

He said the family “is not motivated by financial gain and has no interest in selling or profiting from” the painting.

The proposed sale of the painting has attracted significant media interest in the US because the artist, Thomas Eakins, although not a household name in Europe, is considered to be one of the most important painters in American art history. His most famous portrait, The Gross Clinic, depicting a surgeon at work, was sold for $68 million in 2006.

Mr Goldman said Msgr Garvey, from a “poor farming community” in Cullyhanna, Co Armagh, had emigrated to the US as a teenager, attended the St Charles Borromeo seminary and was ordained in 1868.

“Once Eakins completed the painting of Garvey, he gave it as a gift to the monsignor” who died in 1908.

Half a century

It remained within the Garvey family for nearly half a century and was then presented to the seminary, apparently on loan, in the 1950s.

It is one of a number of portraits of priests by the same artist being sold by the archdiocese.

“The history of the Garveys reflects the history of Ireland, the United States and, most importantly, the history of the rise and development of the Catholic Church in Philadelphia,” Mr Goldman said.

“The family’s home parish in Cullyhanna, Co Armagh, Ireland, understands the contributions this one extended family made to the Catholic Church,” he said, “and has offered with open arms its willingness to protect the Garvey portrait and not to sell it.”

In a statement issued by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Bishop Timothy C Senior, Rector of Saint Charles Borromeo, said: “We are not a museum.” The funds raised from the sale would enable the seminary to “focus on its mission while building for the future”, he said.