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Russborough's priceless old masters are held in trust for the nation - don't sell them


The late Sir Alfred and Clementine Beit at Russborough House, in Co Wicklow

The late Sir Alfred and Clementine Beit at Russborough House, in Co Wicklow

The late Sir Alfred and Clementine Beit at Russborough House, in Co Wicklow

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.

The outcry centres on eight old master paintings, by Rubens, Guardi and Teniers, that were quietly shipped off to Christie's by the Alfred Beit Foundation. The Foundation is a group of trustees whose duty it is to preserve Russborough and its contents intact, for the benefit of the State. The sale of paintings is due to take place in July, so there is still time for a white knight to step in.

Unlike the banks that the Government nationalised with public money, and are supposedly now State-owned, Russborough was left in trust for the beneficiaries to enjoy the charitable bequest for the purposes of education in the arts - those beneficiaries are the Irish people and our visitors to these shores. So we cannot prevent the sale.

It is now up to Arts Minister Heather Humphreys to call an emergency meeting with Tourism Minister Michael Ring to ensure that a vital tourist attraction is aided in finding the necessary resources to save the collection and augment the numbers visiting west Wicklow and our lake district.

Now that there is 'Ireland's Ancient East' to complement the 'Wild Atlantic Way', we need our historic architecture and collections to be similarly supported by marketing and management.

The bequest to the nation by Sir Alfred Beit and his wife Clementine is unsurpassed. The National Gallery has benefited greatly from their largesse, with priceless paintings by Vermeer, Metsu, Murillo, Hobbema, van Ruisdael and the magnificent Goya. The director of the National Gallery is an ex-officio officer of the Beit Foundation and the National Gallery would have had to process the export licence for the paintings, which is rather a conflict of interest.

This is not the first time that pieces from the collection have been sold, but it is the first time that old master paintings have been placed on the market (other than those stolen in the 1970s and '80s). Since 2006, the Foundation has raised more than €5m from the sale of Italian bronzes and Chinese porcelain.

Speaking after the last auction in 2013, the Foundation's chief executive, Eric Blatchford, said he was "absolutely thrilled" and that the money "would go a long way in conserving and preserving Russborough for future generations". Two years later is not exactly "generations".

Much of that income has been spent on upkeep, restoration and the refurbishment of two properties within the estate now available for rent through the Landmark Trust.

Accounts for the Foundation reveal an operating deficit of €564,213 in 2013. It is a figure that does not merit the sale of old masters. A strategic tourism, commercial, educational, fine arts initiative must be established, with the aid of investment specialists and the generosity of another philanthropist for whom, no doubt, there would be some form of tax relief and national gratitude.

The Beit Foundation commissioned an illustrated history of Russborough a few years ago and the glossy tome was published earlier this year. Its authors, William Laffan and Kevin Mulligan, have taken to the pages of the 'Irish Arts Review' with a stinging letter accusing the Foundation of a flagrant "breach of trust".

Given the prominence of these authors, it is indicative of the crisis that they would criticise the Foundation so vociferously.

Other bodies, such as the Irish Georgian Society and An Taisce have launched an appeal against the sale of the paintings.

So, rather than stand by and watch this catastrophe happen, the sale should be halted and the multiple tourism/arts/heritage/education interests that control Government spending in these areas, must step in and assist the Foundation in finding alternative funding and insist on a different approach to maintain the terms of the trust, rather than selling off pieces every few years when the money runs out.

Russborough House should be on every international visitor's 'must-see' list. It surpasses many European Palladian-style mansions built in the 18th century.

The collection contains exceptional pieces gathered on Joseph Leeson's grand tour. He became the Earl of Milltown and it is his portrait you see hanging on a banner outside the Millenium Wing of the National Gallery. Russborough also contains magnificent Baroque and Rococo mirrors, some on loan to the National Gallery, exceptional scagliola tables and some of the finest stucco work by the Lafranchini brothers.

Russborough may have to look at alternative sources of funding, whether it is as a venue for film locations, weddings or conferences or as intended, a centre for the arts.

For the latter to materialise, it is up to the National Gallery to implement a symbiotic strategy, as that institution enjoys the fruits of the bequest.

Leadership from both the Arts and Tourism ministers is the first priority. That is what they are paid to do and that is why they will receive handsome ministerial pensions.

Irish Independent