The saga surrounding the sale of Old Master paintings from the Beit collection has acquired a Groundhog Day quality. The Alfred Beit Foundation has announced that some of the paintings will go under the hammer at Christie's in London on Thursday.
An Taisce, the Irish Georgian Society, the Irish Arts Review and the school of art history and cultural policy at UCD have condemned the sale. This all sounds like – and is – a virtual re-run of events of summer 2015.
To recap: last year, the Alfred Beit Foundation, a charitable trust that runs Russborough House, announced plans to sell six Old Master paintings from the Beit Collection at Christie's. The paintings are part of an art collection left – like the house itself – in trust to the people of Ireland by the late Sir Alfred and Lady Beit.
The foundation said it needed to sell the paintings to establish an endowment fund of €15 million to pay for the running costs and upkeep of the 18th-century stately home and popular tourist attraction in Blessington, Co Wicklow.
Following a public outcry and meetings with the Department of Arts, the foundation agreed to withdraw the paintings from the auction until summer 2016 and, in the meantime, to seek donors in Ireland to buy the paintings and donate them to the State.
One year on, the foundation has succeeded in finding buyers for two of the paintings and a third remains under negotiation. These “white knight” donors receive 80 per cent tax relief under section 1003 of the 1997 Tax Consolidations Act, in return for donating the paintings to the State.
But the other three paintings have failed to attract the support of philanthropists and will go back to auction at Christie’s on July 7th.
So what has been saved for the nation and what is going to be sold? The three paintings saved from auction, worth a combined €5 million, will be given by the donors to the National Gallery of Ireland. The foundation acknowledged “the generous support of philanthropists”, but did not say who the buyers were, nor announce the prices paid. The Department of Arts and Heritage said it would not be naming the donors as the arrangements involved their “private tax affairs”.
However, the Irish Times has established that telecoms billionaire Denis O'Brien acquired Head of a Bearded Man, by Rubens, and that Lochlann Quinn, part-owner of Dublin's Merrion Hotel, and his wife, Brenda, bought A Village Kermesse Near Antwerp by David Teniers the Younger.
It is believed that each painting was sold for about €2 million. Negotiations with a third donor, believed to be Dublin businessman John Gallagher, for the acquisition of Adoration of the Shepherds by Adriaen Van Ostade, for €1 million, are ongoing.
So what’s going to Christie’s? The paintings that will be auctioned are:
Venus Supplicating Jupiter (oil on unframed oak panel) by Rubens, estimated at £1.2-£1.8 million; Piazza San Marco, Venice, with the Basilica and the Campanile, with figures in carnival costume (oil on canvas) by Francesco Guardi, £150,000-£250,000; The Piazzetta, Venice, with the Doge's Palace and the Libreria, San Giorgio Maggiore beyond (oil on canvas) by Francesco Guardi, £150,000-£250,000.
In addition to the three Old Masters, the Alfred Beit Foundation has also asked Christie’s to sell a drawing, Aurora and Cephalus, by the 18th-century French artist François Boucher, estimated at £30,000-£50,000.
Even if the auction in London raises the maximum estimated prices, the foundation will still face a major funding shortfall of millions of euro for its proposed endowment fund.
Commenting on the auction, the Alfred Beit Foundation said it had "exhausted all other avenues to secure the future of Russborough" despite talks over several years "with the Government, political parties, the Heritage Council, tourism and heritage bodies, County Council, trust funds and individuals".
The foundation said that without the €15 million endowment fund “to provide interest to supplement operating revenues, the house cannot survive” and that Russborough would have to close.