While so far there has been no outright resolution to the Beit paintings debacle, one positive outcome might well be the termination of the delegation of responsibility for issuing export licences for works of art to the National Gallery. The unlawful aspect of this arrangement was not the gallery’s granting of licences but the original delegation of authority to it to do so by the then minister in 1985.
The gallery’s consent to seeing works such as those by the Dutch master Peter Paul Rubens leaving the country is in contradiction of its own admirable mission statement policy to conserve and protect and its acknowledgment that our cultural treasures are “one of the main life-enhancing pleasures for many”.
It is hard to see how, along with the Beit Foundation trustees, it acted in the best interests of safeguarding works described in court as “part of Ireland’s rich cultural patrimony”.
The dispatch of works of art out of the jurisdiction requires vigilance and much tighter control. The gallery’s role in providing expert opinion is, of course, a vital resource. Presumably the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht now accepts that the licensing function belongs solely to the State. Meanwhile, the trustees of the Russborough estate still need to raise sufficient funds to save this magnificent gift to the people of Ireland. The Minister’s only commitment – to examine the possibility of an improved tax incentive scheme to encourage donors – does not provide an imminent solution. Purchase of some of the paintings by such a donor and their retention on public display here would be a welcome result of current discussions.
This episode highlights the serious deterioration in funding in recent years and the damage this is doing to the preservation and conservation of heritage landmarks for future generations. If the trustees are forced to fulfil their warning that failure to secure funds will result in “the ultimate closure of Russborough”, that would add another disgraceful chapter to our history of heritage guardianship.