Arts Minister is accused of late response to Beit painting sales
Arts Minister Heather Humphreys has defended her position on the planned sale of famous paintings from the Alfred Beit collection.
She told the Seanad that the Alfred Beit Foundation is an independent trust and cannot be instructed on how to do its business.
"I was only informed of the decision last month - several months after the Foundation entered into the agreement to have the paintings sold," she said.
Ms Humphreys said the paintings involved, which include one by Rubens, had been in storage and not seen by the public for 20 years. She said her department did not have the necessary funds, understood to be about €12m, to buy the paintings for the nation.
"I will continue to see if any other possible options can be explored, but this, however, will be difficult given that the fact that the sale is to proceed next month," Ms Humphreys added.
Earlier, the Government, which does not have a Seanad majority, lost a vote which led to the demand that the Minister should explain the sale.
Independent Senator David Norris said the board of the Beit Foundation should be dissolved, as their reference terms to "advance the arts in Ireland" was questionable. He said it was ironic that the Government was trying to have the Hugh Lane paintings returned to Ireland, while this collection was being sold in London, and he also blamed Sinn Féin whose republican colleagues had in the past tried to rob the paintings.
Independent Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell said the sale should be halted and the Alfred Beit board should be "sacked." She also said the National Gallery board had "exceeded its power" by signing the export licences, as only the Minister Humphreys should have that power.
Fianna Fáil Senator Terry Leyden questioned "why we even had an arts minister" if she was not aware of something this serious. He said a letter from An Taisce was sent to the Minister in early May about the issue but it took the minister six weeks to respond.
"A bit late in the day," Senator Leyden said. But Fine Gael Senator, Maurice Cummins, said this statement was excessive and he accused Senator Leyden of "playing to the gallery," but he regretted the prospective sale of the paintings.
The minister also told the Seanad she had made it clear to the Beit trustees that it would have been advisable for them to come to her before deciding to sell a number of the paintings.
Ms Humphreys reiterated that the trustees said they could not delay the sale as it would incur a Stg£1.4m penalty from the auction house under a deal already done.
The minister also said that 17 Beit paintings had been donated in 1985 by the foundation to the State. But the reset were the property of the foundation. Ms Humphreys said she understood the Beit trustees met her predecessor in April 2013 and were clear on the challenges facing them due to shortage of funding.
The minister said she understood this involved a general discussion of options to maximise support, including possible philanthropic funding. But she was not aware if the question of selling some Beit paintings was raised.