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The fate of the seven pieces of art from the Beit Collection that were scheduled to be sold at Christie’s in July remains in the balance.
The paintings were to be sold to raise around €11 million to create an endowment for Russborough House, the stately home out in Wicklow with stately-home-scale upkeep costs.
They were withdrawn from the auction by the Alfred Beit Foundation in the hope that a private philanthropist or company would make a huge donation towards the house, so that there would be no need to sell the pictures.
But their sale was only postponed until October.
On 1 September, the trust said it couldn’t comment on whether it had made any progress in finding a donation that could save the pictures.
History of Art Sales
This isn’t the first art sale that the foundation has embarked upon.
In 2006, the foundation decided to sell the Italian-renaissance bronzes of the Beit Collection. It got €3.8 million for them – more than expected.
Then, in 2013, the decision was made to sell off porcelain from the collection at Sotheby’s – raising a total of €1.2 million.
But these earnings must not have been enough to sustain Russborough House, which is run at a significant loss. Hence the most recent planned (but stalled) auction.
Is there another option to pay for the house’s upkeep without selling off its art?
Mandy Williams of the Oriel Gallery on Clare Street says there is: the house could be sold to someone who can afford to restore it to its full glory, and the Beit Collection should be given to the National Gallery for the public to enjoy.
“Selling these paintings won’t solve the problem. It is a sticking plaster,” she says. “The deficit in the trust’s accounts, the number of paying visitors and colossal amount of maintenance needed on a house of this size means that this will invariably happen again.”
Without the art collection, says Williams, there won’t be anything left to see at Russborough House.
“I don’t say this lightly, but in order to conserve this collection of masterpieces, they should be thinking about selling the house itself,” she says. “Now, I know this is not ideal either, but if the collection cannot be viewed in the house as was Sir Beit’s wish, and the house cannot generate enough revenue by itself, then I can’t see any other solution.”
That way, too, the public might get to see these paintings. The paintings up for sale have not been on show for security reasons, but they also have not been offered to institutions for display or to the National Gallery on short-term loan, she said. “Surely the public should get to view what it is we are trying to save.”
Williams’ view is not popular with everybody.
An Taisce’s Ian Lumley, who recently replaced Consuelo O’Connor on the trust after O’Connor voted in favour of the sale, says “it would be inappropriate” to sell Russborough House to a private owner. It would be different if it was transferred to the state or to another charity, he said.
Brian Crowley of the Irish Museums Association (IMA) thinks splitting the collection and the house would be a terrible idea. “It’s not about one or the other; it has to be about both,” he says.
Are there any alternatives? A combination of state funding and private support or philanthropy could by the answer, thinks Crowley. But “the IMA don’t have a particular preference how [the collection] is saved, once it’s saved.”
The CEO of Russborough House, Eric Blatchford, could not offer any comment.
What Would the Beits Do?
It is clear that Sir Alfred Beit and Lady Clementine Beit had a strong love for both Russborough House and the art collection handed down to them by Beit’s uncle of the same name. It is doubtful that the couple would have wanted to see the two split up, or pieces of the art collection sold.
In a pamphlet Beit wrote called “Russborough House”, in which he refers to himself in the third person, he described the foundation as “a charitable and educational trust which he established with the object of keeping the house and the art collection intact”.
While Lady Beit told BBC radio at the time that the trust was set up, “We were worried in the future something might happen whereby the house would be sold, people would lap up the land, the house would go to rack and ruin and the collection would be dispersed.” She said there was little or nothing that she would let go from the collection.
It is a relief for many that Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys has signed stricter rules on export licences into law, which feature in the National Cultural Institutions Act, 1997. But Crowley still believes that the enforcement of the law is something that needs to be looked at.
It isn’t completely clear if the export licences granted to the trust for the seven pieces in the Beit Collection by the National Gallery earlier this year are still in place, but Blatchford did say: “My understanding, as a non-lawyer, is that the export licences as previously granted do indeed still stand but, as I say, I‘m no expert on these matters.”
If no charitable donor comes forward by October, it could come to the point of picking the lesser of two evils – keep the house and keep selling some of the art collection, or split them up to save them.
What’s entirely missing from this whole issue is any sense of philantrophy, above that of the Beits themselves. The only options to be considered are selling the art or the State providing money. In most other countries, where they care for their patrimony, a system of philanthropy prevails which supports these properties or museums or galleries for everyone’s enjoyment. I’m just back from Berlin and the degree to which cultural institutions are supported and endowed is impressive. Similarly in the UK. Here its just not considered.
The house should be preserved by the State as a unique cultural institution. We have lost so many of these houses and indeed we seem adept at losing (and destroying) our heritage (ref Aldborough House for example). The great value of Russborough is that it is an intact and furnished house with a great art collection to boot. Its undoubtedly poorly run, dreadfully marketed and perhaps less accessible than is ideal. But its an important treasure for the country.
We need to fundamentally rethink how we manage, protect and fund cultural institutions and fund conservation of our heritage. Other European countries are simply miles ahead of us in this regard. Cant we learn something from them?
All the hokey energy that is being put into 1916 commemorations next year. If only some of that energy were directed to other aspects of our heritage and history.
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