A LEGAL challenge has been brought by An Taisce claiming export licences were not lawfully issued for paintings from the Sir Alred Beit collection.
Some of the ten paintings were scheduled for sale in London today and others on July 9, the High Court heard.
They include two oil sketches by Peter Paul Rubens, one entitled Head of a Bearded Man.
In an affidavit, John Loughman, senior lecturer in UCD’s School of Art, History and Cultural Policy, said the works are “part of Ireland’s rich cultural patrimony” and their loss to Ireland’s cultural heritage would be “enormous”.
The challenge is to a licence of March 16, 2015, granted by the National Gallery of Ireland to the Irish branch of London-based fine art auction house Christie’s, acting as agent of the Alfred Beit Foundation, Russborough House, Co Wicklow.
The licence permits the export of the paintings to the UK and was made in excess of the powers of the Gallery, An Taisce, the National Trust for Ireland, says.
The appropriate authority for the granting of such licences is the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and she has no power to delegate that authority, it is claimed.
Despite “numerous” requests for clarification about the alleged act of delegation, An Taisce says it has been unable to identify how that was achieved.
It did not appear the delegation was achieved by primary or secondary legislation, it is claimed.
While no stay on the sale of paintings has been sought, it is alleged the relevant paintings were unlawfully exported out of Ireland.
An Taisce says it has clarified that Portrait of a Monk, by Rubens, will not now be sold at the auction in London on July 9 and has been returned to Ireland.
The case related to the balance of the paintings subject of the export licence.
Two paintings by John Atkinson Grimshaw were due to be sold today and six others, representing “very important examples” of Flemish, Dutch and Venetian art, on July 9, it says.
An Taisce claims ten paintings were unlawfully exported out of Ireland last March in breach of the provisions of the Documents and Pictures (Regulation of Export) Act 1945.
An Taisce’s nominee on the board of the National Gallery had voted in favour of the sale of the paintings.
However the nominee did not inform An Taisce of that or seek An Taisce’s mandate in advance of the vote, John Harnett, chair of An Taisce said in an affidavit.
An Taisce had learned of the sale through the media and its nominee’s vote did not reflect An Taisce’s stance, he added.
Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns granted leave to bring the judicial review proceedings against the Governors and Guardians of the National Gallery of Ireland and the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
The Alfred Beit Foundation and Christie, Manson and Woods Ltd, trading as Christie’s, of St James’, London, are notice parties to the proceedings.
Counsel for An Taisce, Sara Moorehead, said she was not trying to stop the sale but was putting the respondents on notice of the "infirmities" related to the export licence.
The judge listed the matter for July 3.
An Taisce says an EC Council Regulation of 2009 requires that paintings which were in the territory of a member state must be granted an export licence by that State.
Where paintings are legally exported from one member state to another, the latter state is entitled to issue an export licence, it says.
While three of the paintings at issue were previously exported to Hong Kong and New York, they were not granted an export licence from the Minister and were not legally exported to another member state, it is alleged.
W hat exactly does the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht do? Aside from launching books written by other people? According to a recent report, spoken Irish is diminishing in the Gaeltacht and, after months of appeals from heritage bodies, news of the disposal of paintings from Russborough House has hit the airwaves - when it reaches Joe Duffy, it has become national crisis.