Beit Foundation board set to postpone art sale

Board to meet to discuss pulling of paintings from auction after private donors make offer

The controversial sale of artworks from Russborough House at Christie’s in London may not go ahead after private Irish donors offered to buy the pictures.

The board of the Alfred Beit Foundation, which runs the historic Co Wicklow mansion, is to be asked to agreed to a postponement of the sale and the removal of the artworks from an auction in Christie's next month.

Foundation chairwoman Judith Woodworth said it had received "generous proposals" on behalf of some private Irish donors for the "possible" purchase of the artworks.

"In order to explore this promising offer and conscious of the request of the Minister for the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys for a postponement, I have taken the decision to propose to the board that the sale is postponed, [And]that the foundation enters into negotiations with Christie's to arrange that and remove the artworks from the July sale," she said.


A meeting of the foundation to consider this will be held as soon as can be arranged, Ms Woodworth added.

A selection of nine paintings, including works by Rubens, from the stately home in Co Wicklow were due to be sold by auctioneers Christie’s to raise funds for its upkeep. Two have been sold already with the remaining seven due to be auctioned in July.

The paintings were previously owned by the late Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, a wealthy English aristocratic couple who moved to Ireland in the 1950s.

Ms Humphreys met board members last week and they refused her request to cancel or delay the sale, saying such a move would result in a £1.4 million (€1.9 million) fee for breaking a contract with Christie’s.

She on Monday night welcomed the decision to postpone the proposed auction.

“While conscious and respectful of the independence of the foundation, my priority is to keep the artworks in Ireland if possible,” she said. “I am very pleased, therefore, that the foundation has taken the decision to postpone the sale, in light of my request and the emergence of Irish donors who are considering the purchase of some of the artworks.”

Ms Humphreys said she understood the manoeuvre would involve the donation of artworks to an Irish cultural institution using Section 1003 tax relief. “This is very welcome. I also welcome the fact that the foundation is going to enter negotiations with the auction house Christie’s.”

Ms Woodworth said the foundation was “acutely conscious” of public concern since the sale of the artworks was announced and it remained open to considering any new proposal or option that might emerge.

However, Russborough had run out of resources and had to take the regrettable decision to sell assets “as Sir Alfred and Lady Beit had to before us”.

“The perilous financial status of Russborough and the growing need to fund repairs, restoration and improvements to the fabric of the building and surrounding grounds make it imperative to raise substantial funds.”

A “robust” endowment of up to €15 million was needed to underpin its long term financial stability, the statement added.

“The reality for the Foundation is that if the current proposal or other proposals do not reach a satisfactory conclusion by October 2015 and Russborough is unable to raise the required funds, the Foundation may have no option but to resume the proposed sales so as to avoid a financial crisis.”

Ms Humphreys said she understood the “huge challenges” facing those who seek to maintain historic houses such as Russborough and that she intended to discuss with Minister of State at the Office of Public Works Simon Harris, and other State agencies, “how we can work together to safeguard the future of Russborough”.

An 18th century work by the French artist Jacques de Lajoue from Russborough was recently sold in a separate private deal believed to have been brokered by Christie’s to Leonard Blavatnik, a London-based Ukrainian-born billionaire, for more than €500,000.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is a former heath editor of The Irish Times.