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ireland's art

'Christie's, the stinkers': Auction house will 'disgrace themselves' if it charges penalty fee for Russborough paintings

There have been calls for the board of the foundation to be dissolved.

THERE WERE HEATED scenes today in the Seanad as members called on the Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys to take action and halt the sale of the Russborough paintings.

Addressing the Seanad, Minister Humphreys said she cannot instruct the Alfred Beit Foundation on how to do its business as it is an independent trust.

She said she was only told of the decision to sell the Russborough paintings, which includes significant paintings by Rubens, as well as two Francesco Guardi works, last month.


She said the agreement between the trust and Christie’s in London to auction the paintings on 9 July was made months ago, and she was not informed. 

The minister told the members that she asked the Chair of the Alfred Beit Foundation (ABF), Judith Woodward, if the foundation would consider withdrawing the collection of masterpieces from the auction.

The trustees stated they were unwilling to either delay or cancel the sale, as they would incur a fee of £1.4 million for breaking an agreement with the auction house, Christie’s, with whom they entered a contract several months ago.


Senator David Norris said he did not think the auction house would exercise this fee, stating that it would “disgrace themselves” to do so.

He said if they charged the fee, people would be saying “look at Christie’s, the stinkers”.

norris contacted Christie’s about the possibility of waiving the fee, however, the auction house said it “does not discuss details of confidential client contracts with any third parties”.

A spokesperson for Christie’s said:

We are aware that An Taisce is looking to challenge the basis on which the Irish authorities have granted their export licences for the last 30 years.

Christie’s penalty fee asked Minister Humphreys if she would be asking Christie’s to drop the penalty fee.  A spokesperson said the minister was not in a position to negotiate on behalf of the foundation.

Senator Norris called on the board of the foundation to be dissolved, stating their terms to “advance the arts in Ireland” was questionable, asking how they were achieving this by selling off the artworks.

He said it was ironic that we are seeking on one hand to have the Hugh Lane paintings returned to Ireland, yet this collection is being sold in London.

Senator Marie-Louise O’Donnell said this was the greatest example in the “art of secrecy” she had seen in some time.

“I take it you didn’t know, minister? If you didn’t know then that is outrageous… how dare they operate under such veils of secrecy.”

She said the sale should be halted and the Alfred Beit board should be “sacked”.

Senator O’Donnell said the board of the National Gallery had “exceeded its power” by signing the export licences, stating that only the Minister Humphreys should have that power.

Senator Terry Leyden had harsh words for the minister, questioning why we even had an arts minister if she was not aware of something this serious.

He said a letter from Ian Lumley from An Taisce was sent to the minister in early May about the situation. However, he said it took the minister six weeks to express her concern.

“A bit late in the day,” he said.

‘Stop the sale’

Yesterday, members of the Irish arts community yesterday who met to discuss solutions to the sale of the Russborough paintings.

The first of the Beit paintings have already been sold in London for a combined total of £112,500 (approximately €156,000).

They were entrusted to the Alfred Beit Foundation by Alfred and Lady Beit “for the future enjoyment of the Irish people”.

ruben Head of a bearded man - estimated value £2m-£3m Screengrab Christie's London Screengrab Christie's London

Fianna Fáil Spokesperson on Arts and Culture Seán Ó Fearghaíl said “the future of Russborough House needs to be secured, but pillaging it of its artefacts only serves to undermine the future of the house in the long run”.

At yesterday’s press conference, organised by An Taisce, the UCD School of Art History & Cultural Policy and the Irish Georgian Society, the intervention by the minister was welcomed, however, more needed to be done, it said.

The group called on Minister Humphreys or even the Taoiseach himself to contact the Chair of Christie’s to halt the sale of the paintings so that time is available for all parties to work together to save the collection along with Russborough House and Demesne.

One speaker from the crowd questioned how the Alfred Beit Trust could point blank refuse calls from government when it has received over €2 million in funding.

Public funding

The Department of Arts told that The Heritage Council, which is funded by the department, has provided just over €2.1 million for works to Russborough House since 2002.

The Department – through the Local Authority Conservation Grants Scheme – also funded conservation works at Russborough House with €8,000 in 2010.

However, Minister Humphreys stated that foundation is an independent trust.

I cannot instruct it on how to do its business. I had a very frank conversation this evening during which I made it clear that it would have been preferable if the Trustees had come to me before making their decision to sell the paintings.
The fact that the paintings are now in an auction house in London makes this a very difficult situation to unravel.”

File Photo: Several paintings from the Beit Collection at Russborough House are to be sold in London. It is reported that some of those to be sold, include paintings recovered after they were stolen in major art robberies. End. Beit Collection Gareth Chaney / Photocall Ireland! Gareth Chaney / Photocall Ireland! / Photocall Ireland!

‘Perilous financial situation’ communicated to government 

A statement from the Alfred Beit Foundation said yesterday that before any sales plans were made, “the perilous financial situation at Russborough” was formally notified to the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, as well as to the Minister of State at the Department of Finance with responsibility for the Office of Public Works.

The possibility of the State acquiring some of the ABF paintings was discussed as well as mechanisms to enable donors to acquire the assets. Other suggestions as to how the State could support Russborough were considered.
Given its own serious financial demands, the State was not then in a position to assist and it has indicated that this continues to be the case.

However, the above statement does not name the ministers. sought clarification on the issue from Minister Humphreys and the Minister for State at the Department of Finance with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Simon Harris.

It’s believed the statement refers to previous ministers who held the positions.

A spokesperson for Minister Humphreys said the foundation did not come to the minister about funding issues and she was not consulted in their decision-making process.

File Photo: Several paintings from the Beit Collection at Russborough House are to be sold in London. It is reported that some of those to be sold, include paintings recovered after they were stolen in major art robberies. End. Beit Colletion Gareth Chaney / Photocall Ireland! Gareth Chaney / Photocall Ireland! / Photocall Ireland!

A spokesperson for Minister Harris states that he had no prior consultation with ABF in advance of the sale plans, and that it is his preference that the sale be delayed to allow all other possible options be explored between the department and the OPW.

The minister is said to be disappointed that this has not proved to be possible.

Calls to abandon the sale 

“We have to become louder to the Beit Foundation to abandon this sale, to Christie’s to drop the fee demand,” said An Taisce’s Ian Lumley.

“Stop the sale,” he said, with shouts of “hear, hear” from the audience.

To date, 4,300 people have signed the Irish Arts Review petition to halt the sale of the paintings.

art Dr John Loughman, an senior lecturer at the History of Art and Cultural Policy Department at UCD.

‘Entrusted to the Irish people’

Dr John Loughman, a senior lecturer at the History of Art and Cultural Policy Department at UCD said the collection was entrusted to the Irish nation and that it should be preserved the way the Alfred and Lady Beit intended – within the house.

However, ABF said the paintings “were not left to the State by the Beits”.

“This is something which has been confused by commentary which has also omitted that the Beits themselves sold artworks to assist in the upkeep of Russborough.”

Dr Loughman criticised how the paintings were exported out of the country, toured around the US and the middle East, before the Irish people were told what was happening.

Questions were raised as to why the seriousness of the financial situation was not made clear to the government sooner, stating that it would have given more time for debate as to what to do and would have “embarrassed” the government into doing something to ensure that Russborough stayed open.

Speaking about the impending auction in July, he said it would be a “blot on us as a people” if it were to go ahead.

ta Patrick Guinness from the Georgian Society Christina Finn Christina Finn

The group also appealed to anyone that can help save these paintings to come together and work with the group.

Patrick Guinness from the Georgian Society, godson of Lady Beit and a direct descendent of Arthur Guinness said funds should be raised by amalgamating the NGI and Russborough collection and putting it on a world tour.

In the meantime, he said the Irish government should step in to fill the shortfall, and perhaps be given a painting from the collection to square the loan.

“It might not be an elegant solution,” he said, adding it was a “no-brainer”.

First published at 6.20am 

Read: These paintings were left to you, so how is a gift to the people of Ireland being sold?

Read: National Gallery says it has no money to buy the Russborough paintings




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