Potential Irish purchase of Beit paintings ‘very welcome’

Ministers pleased by emergence of ‘white knights’ willing to buy Russborough paintings

The Government has welcomed the emergence of “white knights” willing to buy paintings from Russborough House that were due to be auctioned at Christie’s in London next month.

The board of the Alfred Beit Foundation, which runs Russborough, agreed on Tuesday to postpone the controversial sale. It had previously rejected a request from Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys to delay it on the grounds it would face a £1.4 million (€1.9 million) fee for breaking a contract with Christie's.

A spokeswoman for Christie’s said: “We are aware of the statement from the Beit Foundation and will discuss it with them further.”

Ms Humphreys said the foundation was “talking to a prospective buyer” while the foundation referred to a proposal from “private Irish donors” for the possible purchase of artworks.


Referring to the potential buyer, Ms Humphreys said: “I don’t know who the person is but what I do know is under the Finance Act, under section 1003, there are very, very generous incentives for people who buy works of art and donate them back to one of our national institutions.”

Under the scheme to encourage the donation of heritage items to Irish cultural institutions, 80 per cent of the market value of the items is offset against the tax liability of the donor, with a ceiling of €6 million in respect of any one year.

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin also welcomed the news that the sale of the paintings, including two works by Rubens, had been postponed. "I just heard this morning that so-called white knights had emerged to acquire them on behalf of the State and that would be a very welcome and good development," he said.

Required funds

However, the foundation warned the auction of the artworks would be resumed if the proposal under consideration, or other proposals that might emerge, did not reach a satisfactory conclusion by October and Russborough was otherwise unable to raise the required funds.

The board said it was seeking a further meeting with Ms Humphreys and Simon Harris, Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works (OPW) "to establish the Government's support for Russborough for the future".

Ms Humphreys, speaking at an event to mark the opening of military archives in Cathal Brugha Barracks in Dublin said plans were underway to establish an expert group. "I've already spoken to my officials. They are in touch with officials in the OPW and in Fáilte Ireland and we hope to put together a working group to provide whatever support we can to the Beit foundation", she said.

Mr Harris said the expertise of the OPW would be at the foundation’s disposal.

“I’m happy to see that common sense has prevailed. All I ever looked for was a deferral of the plan to sell the paintings so we could have a proper engagement,” he said.

The Irish Georgian Society said the postponement provided much needed breathing space to explore options to retain the paintings in Ireland. It urged the Government to immediately review the legislation relating to the export of works of art from Ireland.

Mary Minihan

Mary Minihan

Mary Minihan is Features Editor of The Irish Times