Stolen, found – an Old Master nativity with a colourful past

Over four centuries "The Adoration of the Shepherds" has turned up in places as diverse as Delft in Holland, a royal palace in Germany, a French château, an attic in Clondalkin and a stately home in Co Wicklow

‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ by  Adriaen van Ostade (1610-1685)

‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ by Adriaen van Ostade (1610-1685)

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What is it?

It is an Old Master painting, The Adoration of the Shepherds by 17th-century Dutch artist Adriaen van Ostade. The oil-on-canvas was made in 1667 and measures 48cm by 43cm. The image depicts one of the central images in Christianity – the shepherds in Bethlehem gathered around the manger in the stable worshipping the new-born Jesus. Over the past four centuries the painting has turned up in places as diverse as Delft in Holland, a royal palace in Germany, a French château, an attic in Clondalkin and a stately home in Co Wicklow.

Where is it now?

It is in storage but it will go on public view at Russborough House, Co Wicklow in 2018.

Wasn’t it always in Russborough House?

It has not been on display for many years. The painting was owned by Sir Alfred Beit, who died in 1994, and his wife Clementine, Lady Beit who died in 2005. They left the house and its contents in trust to the people of Ireland in the care of the Alfred Beit Foundation which they established before they died. In 2015, the foundation decided to sell some paintings including The Adoration of the Shepherds to raise money for the upkeep of Russborough House. The paintings were sent to London to be sold at Christie’s but, following a public outcry, the foundation agreed to withdraw six paintings from the auction – including The Adoration of the Shepherds – and to try to find wealthy private buyers who would purchase the paintings and donate them to the National Gallery in return for tax credits.

How come it didn’t end up in the National Gallery of Ireland?

The foundation had hoped to sell The Adoration of the Shepherds for €1 million to a Dublin businessman (who did not wish to be named) who would then have donated it to the gallery and receive a tax credit of €800,000. However, it is understood agreement could not be reached about the painting’s value and the deal was not approved by Revenue. Christie’s had valued it at £600,00-£800,000.

Sir Alfred and Lady Beit in their home at Russborough House, Co Wicklow in 1978. Photograph: Dermot O’Shea
Sir Alfred and Lady Beit in their home at Russborough House, Co Wicklow in 1978. Photograph: Dermot O’Shea

So who did buy it?

A spokesman for the Alfred Beit Foundation has told The Irish Times: “The Apollo Foundation has purchased the Van Ostade painting and has loaned it back to Russborough. The Alfred Beit Foundation will put it on permanent display at Russborough and the painting will be seen on the daily guided house tours which recommence next season, from March 2018.” The price paid for the painting has not been disclosed.

What is the Apollo Foundation?

The Apollo Foundation is a British-registered charitable trust established in 1984 “to promote and further the advancement of education in the fine arts in Ireland (including Northern Ireland)” and is largely funded by money from the estate of Lady Beit. To date, it has donated approximately €2.5 million towards restoration, repairs and maintenance, infrastructural improvements, security systems, marketing and the employment of a curator at Russborough House.

How did the painting come to be in the Beit collection in the first place?

Sir Alfred Beit was an English aristocrat and the heir to a diamond-mining fortune and one of the world’s most important private art collections. The Adoration of the Shepherds was bought – for an unknown sum – by his uncle , also Alfred Beit, in London in 1904.

The painting was originally owned by a private collector in Delft in Holland. Over the years it changed hands many times. In the 17th century, it was owned by a German prince and then ended up in Paris (reputedly after being looted by French troops) where it was acquired by the empress Joséphine, Napoléon’s first wife, and hung in her sumptuous residence, the Château de Malmaison in Reuil-Malmaison on the western fringes of Paris. Following her death, the painting passed through various hands including Sébastien Érard – the famous French maker of musical instruments – and then ended up in London where it was sold at Christie’s in 1849 for 450 guineas.

How did the painting end up in Ireland?

In 1952, Sir Alfred Beit bought Russborough House and he and Lady Beit moved to Ireland with their art collection. The couple had no children. They donated many paintings to the State and eventually left the house and the rest of their art collection in trust to the Alfred Beit Foundation.

Did it really spend time in an attic in Clondalkin?

Russborough House was targeted by art thieves on four occasions – most infamously in 1974 by an IRA gang that included, improbably, the English heiress Rose Dugdale. Most of the stolen pieces were later recovered by the Garda. In the fourth robbery, in September 2002, The Adoration of the Shepherds was one of the paintings stolen. Three months later, gardaí found the paintings in the attic of a house in Deansrath Road in Clondalkin, Dublin. The paintings were undamaged and were returned to the Alfred Beit Foundation. After that, the painting was put into storage and was not seen again in public until its planned sale in London was announced in 2015.

Is the painting’s future – and that of Russborough House – now secure?

Russborough House which has been open to the public since 1976, and attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year, has been temporarily closed to visitors since November 1st while “urgent mechanical and electrical works” are carried out. It will re-open in March 2018 when The Adoration of the Shepherd will go on public display. The Alfred Beit Foundation said it has already raised more than €7 million for an endowment fund (the long-term target is €13.2 million) to secure the future of the house. In addition to the support from the Apollo Foundation, Russborough House has also received funding from the Department of Culture, the Heritage Council, Wicklow Co Council, Fáilte Ireland, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland and the Irish Georgian Society. Barring unforeseen developments, the future of the house looks to be secure and, after four centuries, Adriaen van Ostade’s The Adoration of the Shepherds has found a permanent home.

Has the National Gallery of Ireland lost out?

Up to a point. But at least the painting has been saved from being sold overseas and looks destined to remain in Ireland. In any case, by a twist of fate, the National Gallery of Ireland already has a painting entitled Adoration of the Shepherds that was donated by a previous owner of Russborough House – the Countess of Milltown – in 1901. This version is by the Italian artist Girolamo Troppa and dates from the 1670s. It is not currently on display in the gallery.

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