State cannot afford Beit art set to be sold - Humphreys

Russborough House trust has sent works including Rubens to Christie’s to raise funds

Detail from Sir Peter Paul Rubens’s Venus and Jupiter, oil on oak panel, which is to be sold by the Alfred Beit Foundation to raise funds for the upkeep of the house. The old master artwork has been estimated to sell at £1.2 million to £1.8 million.

Detail from Sir Peter Paul Rubens’s Venus and Jupiter, oil on oak panel, which is to be sold by the Alfred Beit Foundation to raise funds for the upkeep of the house. The old master artwork has been estimated to sell at £1.2 million to £1.8 million.

 

The custodians of valuable paintings due to be sold in London have been urged not to “rush ahead” as Minister for Arts and Heritage Heather Humphreys prepares to meet the Alfred Beit Foundation.

The charitable trust, which runs Russborough House in Blessington, Co Wicklow, has consigned artworks including Old Master oils by Rubens to Christie’s auctioneers to raise funds for the upkeep of the stately home.

Ms Humphreys said on Thursday she was “concerned” about the possibility of such important paintings leaving the country, but stressed her department could not afford to buy the works - which she estimated could fetch in the region of €10 million or €12 million.

“I have spoken to the chairperson of the Alfred Beit Foundation, Judith Woodworth, and I am going to meet with her next week because what I need to be sure is that all of the options have been considered,” she said.

“But one thing that I want to be very clear is that I really don’t have a role in this and I do not have €10 million at my disposal, as much and all as I would like to buy them - we don’t have that money.”

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.

Notorious robberies

The paintings which are up for sale have been in off-site storage for a number of years. Some of the works were among those stolen and recovered following notorious art robberies.

Referring to her upcoming meeting with Ms Woodworth, Ms Humphreys said: “We’re going to have a conversation and we’re going to look to see are there any options or any other avenues that we could explore.”

Meanwhile, Minister of State for Finance with responsibility for the Office of Public Works (OPW), Simon Harris, who represents Wicklow, said he hoped to meet the foundation to talk about the planned sale.

“I don’t think that the foundation, whilst respectful of the fact that it’s their decision, should rush ahead,” Mr Harris said.

Asked if the OPW could take over Russborough House, Mr Harris said it did not have the ability to do so and stressed there was a trust which he described as a “legal entity” in place.

“I really hope that the foundation can engage with all stakeholders, both public and private, to have a discussion about the future of Russborough. And I hope that every avenue is possibly exhausted before they proceed with their current decision.”

Mr Harris said there were obviously consequences to deferring decisions that had already been made, “but I think it is prudent that the State would have a discussion, would try to be helpful in making sure that all avenues have been explored.”

Export licence deficiencies

Meanwhile, Ms Humphreys’s spokeswoman said the Minister was aware of deficiencies within the export licence system allowing paintings to be shipped abroad, and had instigated a review of the process around export licences last year.

In the case of the Beit paintings, the export licence was granted by the National Gallery of Ireland, which has said there is no discretion to refuse such a licence.

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

Ms Humphreys’s spokeswoman said this was because Government was spending more than €30 million on the gallery’s renovation and restoration project “and of course as a result of the economic downturn”.

Ms Woodworth, writing in The Irish Times earlier this month, said Russborough House’s plight should be considered against a background of “recent drastic cuts” across the heritage sector.

Ms Woodworth, who is a former governor of The Irish Times Trust, said the decision to sell “a small selection of Old Master and other paintings” had been taken with “a heavy heart”.

She said the trustees had to “exercise their fiduciary responsibilities” in seeking to protect the house’s long-term survival.