An urgent debate on the proposed of valuable paintings from the Alfred Beit Trust Collection took place in the Seanad on the 18th of June following the failure of the Government to agree the Order of Business for the day. Minister for Arts Heritage and Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys TD attended the debate where Senator Gerard Craughwell expressed his great concern at the proposed sale of invaluable paintings, including two Rubens from the Beit Collecton to private collectors abroad. He said that he had received passionate representations from concerned citizens and was also aware of the unanimous response from every member of the Arts and Heritage Community who have been vocal in their opposition to the sales which they describe as "an irredeemable loss to Ireland's cultural patrimony and a betrayal of the legacy of Sir Alfred and Lady Beit”
Senator Craughwell highlighted a number of important issues with the most pressing being how to stop or suspend the sale of the paintings by Christie’s of London on July 9th. He posed a number of key questions to the Minister for Arts Heritage and Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys TD . Firstly why she and her Department have failed to engage with an Taisce on this issue to date and secondly given that the Documents and Paintings (Regulation of Export) Act 1945 contains no power of delegation which would allow her to delegate that power to a third party, why the National Gallery of Ireland was granted an export licence to send these paintings abroad ?
He went on to say that “On the face of it any unauthorised act of delegation is ultra vires in terms of the 1945 Act and the expressed legislative intent of the Oireachtas and I concur with an Taisce who have applied for a Judicial Review of the matter, “that the export licences issued by the National Gallery are not lawful and should be quashed.” Senator Craughwell called for an immediate review of the operation of the Act and also for an injunction to be placed on the sale of the paintings in the UK.
Craughwell went on to say that while the immediate issue was to stop the sale of the paintings a broader but equally significant issue was the circumstances which have led to the trustees of the Alfred Beit Foundation offering for sale the very artefacts that they were entrusted to protect. He said that “the trustees of the foundation should be asked to account for themselves and that a more strategic approach be taken going forward which does not involve the sale of precious assets. The sale of assets in the proposed way is very much a “smash and grab” approach and even if it does go ahead it does not offer a sustainable solution to the long-term maintenance of the Russborough Trust” In fact he said “if allowed to continue it will lead ultimately to the diminishment of the collection which apart from the huge loss to the culture and heritage of Ireland would surely discourage any future philanthropist from leaving collections in Trust for the People of Ireland.
He went on to say the “proposed sale has highlighted the inadequacy of the current regulatory and legislative framework governing the sale overseas of Ireland’s cultural patrimony, and an urgent updating of Irish export law on cultural heritage to the best European standards is required. In 1976, when Sir Alfred Beit transferred the entire Russborough estate to the Alfred Beit Foundation as a charitable and educational trust it was for the sole purpose ‘of keeping the house and art collection intact, making it a centre for the arts and open to the public.’ He believes that this extraordinarily generous and outstanding bequest to the Irish people is now under threat is a travesty. He lamented that “As a nation we have failed to live up to Beit’s expectations. Not only has Russborough not become the “centre for the Arts “ as Beit envisaged but now we are failing his one request to “keep the collection intact” It is only ten years since the passing of Lady Beit and many have commented that she and her husband would be turning in their graves over this.”