More than 2,400 people have signed an online petition calling for a halt to the planned sale of paintings from the Beit collection at Russborough House. The petition, launched two weeks ago by the quarterly magazine Irish Arts Review calls on "the Beit Trustees to call off, or at least to immediately postpone, the sale of the pictures".
The Alfred Beit Foundation, a charitable trust which runs the stately home in Blessington, Co Wicklow, has consigned the paintings to Christie's auctioneers in London to raise funds for ongoing conservation and upkeep of the house.
The paintings, including Old Master oils by Rubens, are expected to raise millions of euro which the foundation said was essential to keep Russborough House open to visitors.
But John Mulcahy, editor of the Irish Arts Review, said the trustees' decision was "badly flawed" and that "Alfred Beit must be turning in his grave". The Irish Georgian Society and An Taisce have also criticised the sale, although both organisations' representatives on the board of the foundation approved the original decision.
Staff at UCD’s School of Art History have also complained about the sale and said “the public was not informed of this action until export licences were granted and the paintings removed from this jurisdiction”.
They called on the foundation “to withdraw these works from auction, and to investigate adequately alternative means of funding Russborough”.
But Judith Woodworth, chairwoman of the
Alfred Beit Foundation
, which has briefed government ministers about the financial plight of Russborough, has defended the decision, saying: “the alternative is to mothball this great house, put up the shutters and allow the house and estate to fall into decay”.
Wicklow Labour Party TD Anne Ferris has criticised the sale and said the foundation "was not granted favourable charitable status with the sole objective of fixing leaking gutters on Russborough House" a place, she believes, that "could do for Co Wicklow and Ireland what the Guggenheim has done for Bilbao".
The Minister for Arts and Heritage, Heather Humphreys said the sale of the paintings was "a matter for the Beit Foundation in the first instance" and that "the granting of the export licence [allowing the paintings to be shipped to London for the auction] was handled by the National Gallery of Ireland".
Last week, the New York Times in a story headlined: "Sale of Old Masters sets off an outcry in Ireland" noted that "Ireland, still suffering from nearly a decade of economic austerity, has generally not come to the rescue of cultural organisations or landmarks".
The late Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, a wealthy English aristocratic couple who moved to Ireland in the 1950s, left Russborough House and its contents, in trust, to the people of Ireland.
They had separately donated the bulk of their world-renowned art collection to the National Gallery of Ireland and this collection, which includes a priceless Vermeer painting, remains in State ownership and is unaffected by the planned auction.