An Taisce's Proposal for Securing and Managing Russborough House and the Alfred Beit Collection

9th May 2015
Press Release

The proposal by The Alfred Beit Foundation to sell a significant part of the Beit picture collection on the international market would be an unacceptable loss to Irish cultural patrimony and should be abandoned. An Taisce believes The Foundation is failing in its responsibility towards the legacy with which it has been entrusted by disposing of a major part of the internationally significant Beit collection.

An Taisce is seeking the intervention of Government and all organisations concerned with culture, heritage and tourism in Ireland to achieve a partnership solution to secure the future of the entire Beit collection in Ireland. This solution should extend to the maintenance and management of Russborough House and demesne.

On the 30th April 2015, Christies and The Alfred Beit Foundation made a joint announcement on a proposed auction on July 7th, 2015 in London and pre-sale tour promotion to New York and Hong Kong [Note 2]. The estimated value of the collection of painting is €10m but they may realise up to €20m on the day, given their provenance and quality [Note 3].

These paintings represent a significant part of the collection of paintings formed by the Beit family from the late 19th Century. While the major works were presented to the National Gallery of Ireland by the late Sir Alfred Beit, the remaining collection, along with Rusborough, was bequeathed to The Alfred Beit Foundation (ABF), which was established in 1976 with a board of trustees. The sale of 350 acres of land at Russborough was used to provide an endowment of almost £400,000 c.1978 which in today’s value amounts to almost £3 million. The Beit Foundation is currently operating at an annual loss of €300,000 (2013).

This sale is justified to fund works to the 18th century house at Russborough and create an endowment for the maintenance of the buildings, gardens and grounds.

The Alfred Beit Foundation has previously sold off a collection of sculptures in 2006 and china in 2013 to raise funds for the maintenance of Russborough, already establishing an unsustainable pattern of asset diminishment, without providing any future security for the collection or the property.

No costing has been made available on the capital works said to be needed to the house, on which extensive work has already been carried out in recent years, much of it with public funds. Indeed paintings and furniture from the Milltown bequest, originally from Russborough, to the National Gallery of Ireland are currently lent for display in the house, which is clearly considered in a fit condition to receive them.

The level of visitor receipts and other income generated by Russborough against annual costs has been a continual difficulty for the Foundation. However this is no way justifies the sale of the core part of the Beit collection held by the Foundation. The selling off of one part of a cultural endowment to pay for the maintenance or management of another is not a credible policy.

This unsustainable approach is obvious from the millions raised in previous sales from the collection within the last ten years (fourteen items of oriental ceramics were sold for 1.2 million euro as recently as November 2013 and in 2006 a collection of Italian bronzes were sold for 3.8 million). Given this trend, it seems inevitable that further sales of the contents will result.

It is also unfortunate that if the threatened sale proceeds, most of the works are likely to pass to buyers across the world.

An Taisce is seeking a partnership solution to secure the future of the entire Beit collection in Ireland which would [Note 4]:

  1. Permanently secure the paintings and other objects held by the Alfred Beit Foundation as part of Ireland’s cultural patrimony. All of the paintings and other objects and collections held by the ABF in trusteeship should be placed either on display in Russborough, or in the case of the two smaller Rubens pictures included in the proposed sale, placed on permanent loan with the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI).
  2. Set up a new partnership for the appropriate long-term maintenance and management of Russborough house and demesne, between the Alfred Beit Foundation (ABF), National Gallery Ireland and Irish Heritage Trust.

The current proposed sale of paintings significantly undermines this legacy and needs to be halted. An Taisce has placed Russborough and its historic Beit collection as the premier site on its buildings at risk watch list. (http://www.antaisce.org/issues/buildings-at-risk)

Russborough and its historic collections is one of Ireland's great cultural legacies. We must take urgent action to retain these paintings for the Nation.

ENDS For further information, please call:

Charles Stanley-Smith, Communications, An Taisce Tel: +353 87 2411995
email: publicaffairs@antaisce.org
An Taisce The National Trust for Ireland
www.antaisce.org

NOTES:

  1. Russborough House has been the source of two great public bequests of art. The first, the Milltown collection, was gifted by the Countess of Milltown to the National Gallery of Ireland and the second by Sir Alfred and Lady Beit through the Alfred Beit Foundation, which included Russborough House itself.
  2. Announcement of the sale http://www.christies.com/about/press-center/releases/pressrelease.aspx?pressreleaseid=7887
  3. This outlines the works to be sold as follows: "The group of paintings that will be auctioned is led by two magnificent works on panel by Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Head of a bearded man (estimate: £2-3 million) and Venus and Jupiter (estimate: £1.2-1.8 million). The group also includes one of the most celebrated Kermesse scenes by David Teniers the Younger (estimate: £1.2-1.8 million), a rare religious work by Adriaen van Ostade, Adoration of the Shepherds (estimate: £600,000-800,000), and a pair of Venetian views by Francesco Guardi (estimate: £300,000-500,000). A selection of highlights from the group will go on view in pre-sale exhibitions at Christie’s in New York from 2 May to 12 May, followed by London (28 May to 1 June), Hong Kong (28 May to 1 June) and London in June and July."
  4. Partnership Solution:

In view of the historic relationship between Russborough and NGI, as the recipients firstly of the Milltown bequest of paintings and furnishings from the house in the early 20th Century and later of the Beit bequest, there is a major case for establishing the formal involvement of the NGI in Russborough. There are examples of this in Britain where national cultural institutions partner with other trusts, such as that between the National Portrait Gallery and The National Trust at Beningborough in Yorkshire.

Such a proposal would see the NGI entering in long term legal agreement with the ABF to provide for maintenance and management of the centre block at Russborough creating a formal partnership between NGI, ABF and Russborough.

Apart from securing the future of the centre block for the display of the Beit legacy, this would also allow the major part of the Milltown collection originally housed at Russborough, and not forming part of the NGI core exhibition, to return to the house while remaining in the full custodianship of the Gallery.

This would require an increase in the annual operating budget of the NGI, to include the curatorial maintenance and management of the central block of Russborough. However, this would also be a fitting acknowledgment by the State of the Milltown and Beit bequests.

The Alfred Beit foundation has already leased the walled garden to the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland, who are carrying out a restoration project which secures its maintenance and allows for visitor access.

Parallel to this, it is proposed that The Irish Heritage Trust could be invited to take on the long term management of the remainder of the buildings and demesne and manage and promote it as a major visitor attraction.