The sale of Old Master paintings from Russborough House in Co Wicklow is "an absolute necessity" if the stately home is to remain open to the public, according to the Alfred Beit Foundation.
Judith Woodworth, an unpaid volunteer who chairs the Foundation – a charitable trust which looks after the house and art collection left by the late Sir Alfred and Lady Beit to the people of Ireland – said funds were required for urgent repairs and ongoing conservation.
Despite a big increase in visitor numbers, running costs were “utterly unsustainable” and Russborough House “would have to close down” unless money can be raised quickly.
The Palladian mansion, which employs 20 people and attracted 24,000 paying visitors last year, is “operating at a loss”, said Ms Woodworth, and has no alternative source of revenue.
The foundation has asked Christie's in London to sell a small selection of paintings by artists including Rubens, David Teniers the Younger, Adriaen van Ostade and Francesco Guardi.
The paintings have not been on public view for many years due to security concerns. Some were stolen (but later recovered) from the house, first in 1974 by an IRA gang led by British heiress Rose Dugdale, and again in 1986 by Dublin criminal Martin Cahill.
The board of the foundation "unanimously approved" the "painful but necessary decision" to sell the paintings at a meeting earlier this year. The board includes nominees from the Royal Dublin Society; University College Dublin; Trinity College Dublin; The Irish Georgian Society; The National Gallery of Ireland; and An Taisce.
However, the Irish Georgian Society has distanced itself from the decision and claimed the sale would “represent an irredeemable loss to our national cultural patrimony” and the paintings would be “lost forever to Ireland”. The society’s representative on the board of the foundation, Robert O’Byrne, has resigned. The Irish Georgian Society was not available for comment yesterday.
The sale appears to have the approval of the National Gallery of Ireland which has granted export licences to allow the paintings to leave the country. The Alfred Beit Foundation has pointed out that the National Gallery already has paintings by these artists in its collection and also owns the bulk of the Alfred Beit collection, which is unaffected by this sale.
A spokesperson for Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys told The Irish Times that the Minister was "not consulted about the granting of the licence or the proposed sale in advance" and that the sale is "a matter for the foundation".
Christie's said the paintings would be auctioned in London in July and could raise up to €11 million. The top lot is Head of a Bearded Man by Rubens which alone has an upper estimate of £3 million (€4.19 million).
The paintings are on view in New York and will later be shipped to Hong Kong and London for further viewings ahead of the auction.