National Gallery powerless to act on Beit paintings in London sale

Gallery interested in acquiring some paintings but no funds for purchases since 2010

Portrait of a bearded man, in three-quarter profile – Rubens (1577-1640).  Photograph: The Irish Times

Portrait of a bearded man, in three-quarter profile – Rubens (1577-1640). Photograph: The Irish Times

 

The National Gallery of Ireland has said it cannot be blamed for allowing valuable paintings from the Alfred Beit collection to leave the country.

The decision by the Alfred Beit Foundation to put up several paintings for auction in London has caused controversy in the art world. Many are concerned the works will be lost to Ireland forever.

The export licence was granted by Sean Rainbird, the gallery’s director. He is also one of 11 members of the foundation.

The gallery’s board issued a statement yesterday describing the current export licensing scheme as “wholly inadequate” because there is no discretion to refuse such a licence.

“The suggestion therefore that his [Sean Rainbird’s] involvement in the administration of the export licence request and his involvement in the foundation somehow placed him in a conflict of interest is simply wrong.”

The board pointed out that provision was made in the National Cultural Institutions Act 1997 for export licences to be refused under certain circumstances, but the commencement order was never signed.

The gallery is interested in acquiring some of the paintings put up for sale, but has had no funds for acquisitions since 2010.

The foundation announced the sale of the paintings, which include two by Old Master Peter Paul Rubens, in April.

Its chairwoman, Judith Woodworth, stated that the money was needed to safeguard the future of Russborough House in Wicklow, where they were housed before being put on view in New York and elsewhere ahead of the auction.

A petition on the Irish Arts Review website to keep the paintings in Ireland has attracted more than 2,500 signatures.