Court hears export licences for Beit paintings unlawfully issued

An Taisce takes legal challenge over fate of 10 artworks

A legal challenge by An Taisce has been brought alleging export licences were not lawfully issued for 10 paintings, some of which are scheduled for sale in London today and others on July 9th.

The works, part of the collection of Sir Alfred Beit, include two oil sketches by Peter Paul Rubens, one entitled Head of a Bearded Man. In an affidavit, John Loughman, senior lecturer in UCD's School of Art, History and Cultural Policy, said the works are "part of Ireland's rich cultural patrimony" and their loss to Ireland's cultural heritage would be "enormous".

It is alleged a licence of March 16th 2015 granted by the National Gallery of Ireland to the Irish branch of London-based fine art auction house Christie's, acting as agent of the Alfred Beit Foundation, Russborough House, Co Wicklow, for export of the paintings to the UK was made in excess of the powers of the Gallery.

The appropriate authority for the granting of such licences is the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and she has no power to delegate that authority, it is claimed.


Despite “numerous” requests for clarification about the alleged act of delegation, An Taisce says it has been unable to identify how that was achieved. It did not appear the delegation was achieved by primary or secondary legsislation, it is claimed

While no stay on the sale of paintings has been sought, it is alleged the relevant paintings were unlawfully exported out of Ireland.

An Taisce says it has clarified that Portrait of a Monk, by Rubens, will not now be sold at the auction in London on July 9th and has been returned to Ireland. The case related to the balance of the paintings subject of the export licence.

Two paintings by John Atkinson Grimshaw are due to be sold today and six others, representing “very important examples” of Flemish, Dutch and Venetian art, on July 9th, it says.

An Taisce, the National Trust for Ireland, claims ten paintings were unlawfully exported out of Ireland last March in breach of the provisions of the Documents and Pictures (Regulation of Export) Act 1945.

While An Taisce’s nominee on the board of the National Gallery had voted in favour of the sale pf the pantings, the nominee did not inform An Taisce of that or seek An Taisce’s mandate in advance of the vote, John Harnett, chair of An Taisce said in an affidavit. An Taisce had learned of the sale through the media and its nominee’s vote did not reflect An Taisce’s stance, he added.

Sara Moorhead SC, for An Taisce, secured leave from the President of the High Court, Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns, to bring the judicial review proceedings against the Governors and Guardians of the National Gallery of Ireland and the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

The Alfred Beit Foundation  and Christie, Manson and Woods Ltd, trading as Christie’s, of St James’, London, are notice parties to the proceedings.

Ms Moorehead, who made the application ex parte (one side only represented) said the issue raised is “very net” and she wanted an early return date for the matter.

Asked by the judge if she was seeking a stay, Ms Moorehead said she was not trying to stop the sale but was putting the respondents on notice of the “infirmities” related to the export licence. The judge listed the matter for July 3rd.

Earlier, counsel said, while the export licence was granted last March, her side had had to get information via a Freedom of Information request and only got that information this month.

While a parliamentary question was previously put about the export licence, the response was sparse, that it was a matter for the National Gallery, counsel said.

In its action, An Taisce says the director of the National Gallery who signed the export licence is also a member of the committee of management of the Beit Foundation.

It says an EC Council Regulation of 2009 requires that paintings which were in the territory of a member state, such as the 10 paintings at issue, must be granted an export licence by that State. Where paitings are legally exported from one member state to another, the latter state is entitled to issue an export licence, it says.

While three of the paintings at issue were previously exported to Hong Kong and New York, they were not granted an export licence from the Minister and were not legally exported to another member state, it is alleged.

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times