The trust that runs Russborough House in Co Wicklow has refused a request by Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys to cancel or delay the sale of valuable paintings from the Beit collection in London.
Ms Humphreys said Alfred Beit Foundation representatives told her at a meeting on Tuesday night that such a move would result in a £1.4 million (€1.9 million) fee for breaking a contract with the auctioneers with whom it placed the artworks to raise funds to maintain the stately home.
Two paintings by 19th-century English artist John Atkinson Grimshaw were sold by Christie's for a combined total of £112,500 (approximately €156,000) on Tuesday, while the others including works by Rubens, are to be sold in July.
In a statement, the foundation said its representatives had “confirmed to the Minister a delay of the sale was not an option as the challenges in funding a house such as Russborough are immense”.
Ms Humphreys met with the chairwoman of the foundation, Judith Woodworth, a former governor of The Irish Times Trust, and trustees Adrian Masterson and Klaus Unger.
“I asked the chair if it would be possible to delay the sale to provide some breathing space and explore all other possible options that would involve my department and the Office of Public Works (OPW),” Ms Humphreys said.
“The Trustees present declined, citing the fact that they would incur a liability of €1.4 million for breaking the contract into which they have entered.”
Ms Humphreys described the development as “very disappointing”.
She said she made it clear it would have been preferable if the trustees had come to her before taking the decision to sell the paintings.
However, she said that she could not instruct the trust how to do its business. “The memorandum and articles of association [of] the Alfred Beit Foundation also make it clear that the trust is perfectly entitled to sell the assets of the foundation,” she said.
The foundation said Russborough House needed about €1 million every year to cover its operational costs and to maintain and restore the fabric of the house and the estate.
Meanwhile, a Government backbencher has called on the Charities Regulatory Authority to examine the sale.
Labour TD for Wicklow Anne Ferris said she had sent a file of information "including financial statements and the original company memorandum" to the authority for urgent review.
The paintings sold on Tuesday were scenes of Scalby, a village near the Engish seaside resort of Scarborough.
The first was titled Yew Court, Scalby, on a November night.
The second was titled The old gates, Yew Court, Scalby, near Scarborough.
Each was estimated at between £50,000 to £70,000 and each made £56, 250 - at the low end of expectations.
The two paintings - auctioned separately - were bought by the same, unnamed bidder in the saleroom.
Among the further seven paintings to be auctioned next month are two Old Master paintings by 17th century Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, and two views of Venice by 18th century Italian artist Francesco Guardi.
If all the paintings sell at the top of their estimates, the collection could realise in the region of €11 million.
Earlier, Taoiseach Enda Kenny was briefed on the controversy during a meeting with Ms Humphreys, which was also attended by Minister of State for Finance with responsibility for the Office of Public Works (OPW) Simon Harris.
Mr Kenny had said on Monday that Ms Humphreys was meeting Ms Woodworth “to discuss what might be considered that we could actually do in this case”.
He said a range of “possible opportunities” would be discussed.
“Clearly a sale has been registered and signalled by the auction house and that’s a matter for consideration.”