State will hoard the art as Smyth experiences a 'Celtic Tiger reverse'
The developer behind The Square in Tallaght is sanguine about the loss of his art works, writes Jerome Reilly
Solicitor-turned-property developer Noel Smyth bought his first painting by expressionist Brian Maguire when he was 17 and working as a porter cleaning the trains at Bray station.
Now that first painting, purchased when he was earning £10/18s/6d a week in 1969, is in the hands of the toxic asset bank Nama after the millionaire businessman was forced to sign over his entire lifelong collection of 400 pieces.
Mr Smyth, whose Alburn Developments controls The Square in Tallaght, is sanguine about the loss of his paintings and sculpture.
"There's a few blank walls around the place but that's grand. That's part of the Celtic Tiger reverse. There are people with a lot more on their plate than losing a few paintings," he says.
Mr Smyth is the solicitor who at one time acted for businessman Ben Dunne. Mr Smyth's sworn testimony was instrumental in forcing Charlie Haughey to admit to the Moriarty tribunal that he had taken £1.2m from Mr Dunne.
He is also a founder of 3TS, the suicide charity, and was the major financial benefactor who brought the relics of Saint Therese of Lisieux around Ireland.
"I used to hand over half my wages to my mother and after a few weeks' work I had saved enough to buy that first painting. It cost me £5, which was a lot of money at the time," he recalled.
"One of the things that happened when I was dealing with Nama over this is that I had to sign a confidentiality agreement, while they were also supposed to keep my end of the business in confidence as well. Obviously, they didn't do that. They have been spouting about it even though they only just picked up the art."
He says that his time spent collecting art was a joy.
"What little I learnt happened as I was going along. I bought some paintings from George and Maura McClelland and some of those are now in the Irish Museum of Modern Art as part of its permanent collection.
"It's a mixum-gatherum of pictures and there are also sculptures by Eddie McWilliam (FE McWilliam, the Banbridge-born surrealist) and a diverse collection of Irish artists. I'm not allowed to say which ones -- but you can have a guess at most of them and you probably wouldn't be wrong," he says.
It is known that Smyth put together an eclectic collection, mostly bought as he indulged his hobby of visiting art gallaries at home and abroad.
Artists who he is known to collect include Paul Henry, John Luke, New York-born Charles Brady, Colin Middleton, Mary Swanzy, William Scott and Grace Henry -- but he is also a big fan of Tony O'Malley, whose talents, he believes, have yet to be fully recognised.
Mr Smyth was also involved in the Millennium project to produce a book entitled 100 Years of Irish Art, which has never been put on sale but has been given to various notaries (including Bill Clinton and Tony Blair). It included images of some paintings in his own collection.
He regrets losing some of the paintings more than others. For his 40th birthday, his late mother gave him a small painting of a mother and child, which although of relatively small monetary value did have great sentimental significance for him.
He didn't ask for any paintings to be held back from going into Nama.
"It doesn't work like that. If you're handing over the collection, it's the entire collection."
Smyth says his taste developed over the years, changing from what he calls "chocolate-box paintings" to more challenging modern art.
"It's like drinking really. When you're young you like Coca-Cola but years later you prefer the taste of Guinness. Collecting art is like that."
Mr Smyth got a tax break worth €2,147,000 some years ago for donating 89 of his paintings to the State. The Tax Exemption for Artwork, known as Section 1003, was introduced in the 1997 Budget by the then Minister for Finance, Ruairi Quinn.
The collection now held by Nama was a form of downpayment covering debts built up by Mr Smyth's company Alburn. It is understood Nama has taken charge over some of his other assets.
Now, the agency will decide what happens to the art works in Mr Smyth's collection.