There are no laws to prevent the sale of our fine-art heritage
Emer O'Kelly wonders if our soul is being offered for sale at every fair, as Patrick Kavanagh wrote
The public has become aware of the fact that the Beit Foundation is planning to sell off a number of Old Master paintings held in trust for the Irish people, which may well be worth more than €11m. There has been a public outcry, but not enough to force anybody, least of all anyone in government, to respond to the heritage disaster represented by the sale at Christie's of London.
Nobody seems to mind what are called the "traditional arts" costing money: Comhaltas Ceolteoiri Eireann says it is a widespread and massively popular and successful organisation, but still claims to need taxpayer support, which is given generously and willingly. There is no objection to government (taxpayer) subsidies to the GAA, despite the fact that the organisation claims to be a massively intrinsic and popular organisation (which is true) and, therefore, should be able to support itself. But ask the Government to support anything to do with the fine arts and there is silent resistance. They are not "part of what we are".
In 1976, Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, the childless owners of Russborough House, one of Ireland's greatest Palladian houses, formed a trust to protect the house and its collection of priceless world-status art. They had bought the house as a home, not just for themselves, but for the magnificent collection.
It was a feature of the trust that the trustees would in future have the right to sell any part of the collection in order to defray the cost of the estate's upkeep. Nonetheless, the major purpose of the trust was "to promote education in the fine arts", something which clearly would not have been well served by selling off major items on a continuing basis: not much would have been left to educate people with.
Following the two much-publicised robberies at Russborough, in 1974 by an IRA gang led by Rose Dugdale, and by the Martin Cahill gang in 1986, Sir Alfred and his wife donated the major portion of the collection to the National Gallery (the Irish people).
Security was a motivating factor, but the generosity of the gift was overwhelming: the collection is now worth an estimated €100m.
The rest stayed in the possession of the Beit Foundation which owned and administered Russborough, but for security reasons the more important works in that residue collection were removed from the house, and put into storage under the supervision of the National Gallery.
They included the works being offered for sale in London next month, featuring two particularly fine works by Rubens (a third work has been withdrawn from sale, apparently because doubts have been raised about its authenticity as a Rubens).
An export licence was granted for the paintings by the National Gallery, and they had left the country before anyone heard about the proposed sale. The Government had not been informed; nor was it legally necessary for the trust to inform the Government, as the foundation has independent "favourable charitable status". But it's hard to see that government knowledge would have been of any help, given the massive shrugging of her shoulders by Minister Heather Humphreys when she did find out: the Government's cupboard for the arts is bare, she said. Tough.
And the Beit Foundation has pointed out that the works do not, in fact, belong to the Irish people, but to the foundation, and they had "explored every other option" before deciding on the sale.
The foundation also pointed out that they had approached the Government for aid in 2013, pointing out the "perilous situation at Russborough", and had been turned down. Also, they point out, that by the terms of the trust, they are permitted to sell "non-core" assets to defray the expenses of their operation. ("Non-core" does not seem to be defined; many people would consider the collection a very "core" asset).
Russborough is currently running at a deficit of €400,000 annually, despite attracting large numbers of visitors. Its trustees include representatives of UCD, Trinity, the National Gallery, An Taisce, the Royal Dublin Society and the Irish Georgian Society.
The director of the National Gallery, Sean Rainbird, who granted the export licence, is the gallery representative on the foundation. An Taisce's representative is Consuelo O'Connor, the organisation's former chair, and the Irish Georgian Society representative was Robert O'Byrne, a former social diarist with the Irish Times. (He was party to the decision to sell the paintings, but subsequently resigned from the trust in protest at the sale).
There was a meeting on Tuesday between Minister Humphreys and Judith Woodworth, chair of the Beit Foundation; nothing changed. In the interim, the Irish Georgian Society, An Taisce and senior academics of the art history department in UCD had all protested in the strongest terms at the sell-off of what they described as part of the Irish people's heritage.
There has been government assistance for Russborough in the past through the Heritage Council, which, prior to the recession, received a total national budget of €22m. This was cut to just €7m last year. Over the 20 years of its existence, the council has granted more than €2m to the Beit Foundation, all of which went into restoring and repairing Russborough itself. Most of that work was destroyed in a major fire at the house in 2010.
In 2011, the Heritage Council offered only €18,000. There has been nothing since.
A report commissioned by the Heritage Council last year (by the economist Peter Bacon) pointed out that of all the monies disbursed from National Lottery funds, the heritage sector receives only 1.4pc in total.
There have been previous sales from the Beit collection at Russborough: a collection of oriental bronzes in 2006, which realised €3.8m, and a collection of Italian ceramics in 2013, which fetched €1.2m.
No knowledge of these sales came into the public domain until after the event, nor was any public appeal made for funding by the Beit trustees prior to sale.
It also became known recently that another work from the collection received an export licence earlier this year, and was sold to a private collector for more than half a million euro. It was one of a pair, and An Taisce has described the splitting of the two works as an "artistic tragedy".
But Sean Rainbird, responsible for the granting of licences as director of the National Gallery, complained this week that his hands were tied as our current export licensing scheme is based on 1945 legislation and is wholly inadequate, with no basis on which a licence can be refused, or made subject to any conditions.
Sir Alfred and Lady Beit received honorary Irish citizenship in 1993 in recognition of their extraordinary generosity to the people of Ireland. Sir Alfred died in 1994. In all this sorry mess, there are a few observations. If the trustees are worth their places at the table, surely they could have come up with a more effective methodology for fundraising.
How can the organisations, now (justifiably) objecting in the strongest possible terms to the sale of the paintings, seriously do so when it was their nominators on the foundation who agreed to the proposal to sell in the first place?
More rhetorically, but of even more importance for the future of Irish heritage and fine art, is the question posed this week by Patrick Guinness, current president of the Irish Georgian Society: will anybody, ever again, be prepared to donate works of art to Ireland and its people?