Beit Collection - National Treasures

Posted on June 18, 2015

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Beit Collection: Statements

 I welcome the Minister and I welcome the opportunity to seek clarification on some of the vital questions this issue has thrown up. I echo the words of Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell and others that there is a glaring lack of transparency in the way in which this matter has proceeded. There is a vital question as to whether the sale of the paintings can be prevented. I thank the Minister for offering some more clarity on that issue. There are still a number of questions that remain to be answered. Why, as Senator O'Donnell and others have said, did the trustees not approach the Minister prior to entering into the contract with Christie's? I understand from what the Minister has said that she only knew of the sale last month, several months after the foundation had entered the agreement with Christie's to sell the paintings. It is clear it did go to the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, in 2013, but it is not clear at that point if the prospect of the sale was raised; in other words, if it was ever said to any Minister that if nothing was done these paintings would be sold.

  I note the members of the board, as Senator Cummins has pointed out, included representatives from the National Gallery and An Taisce. There are questions as to why the board made this decision. That is to acknowledge also the very difficult task the board and the trustees had. Senator Marie-Louse O'Donnell raised a question about the cost of running Russborough House. I am very grateful to the Heritage Council, with whom I was in contact before the debate, which provided some very interesting figures on the huge amount of money it alone provided to Russborough House over a number of years to preserve and maintain the building. For example, in 2007 it provided €450,000 for roof repairs to two wings. Clearly the costs are immense. The key question is whether the sale can be prevented at this stage. I would love to get a clear answer on that issue.

  There is one further question I wish to ask. What can be done to prevent any future such sales, not just of this bequest but of other treasures left to the public and to secure the future of Russborough and other historic houses? The Heritage Council pointed out the need for the development of a sustainable maintenance programme for historic houses. The letter from Michael Starrett of the Heritage Council in The Irish Times today sets out a number of issues about that.

  We can also look at what has been done in the past on similar issues. I have spoken to the Minister about what a previous Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Michael D. Higgins, did 22 years ago. A few minutes ago I looked at his speech in the Dáil in 1993 when he spoke of negotiating with the trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, a similar trust, albeit that some terms would have been different, to amend the terms of that bequest to transfer that collection of treasures, also left to the public in trust, to Dublin Castle. He referred to the really tricky complexities of amending the terms of the bequest but also to the specific need to ensure these treasures would be accessible to the public. In all of this sad affair, perhaps the greatest shame, is that for 20 years none of us has been able to view these pictures. Many of us did not know these paintings were there until the projected sale came to light. I think there is a bigger question for all of us as to how to secure and retain ownership for the public and access of the public to treasures such as these. These paintings should have been on display in the National Gallery. I understand Russborough House could not get the insurance to display the paintings, given the sad history of robberies there. There is a huge issue around public access to treasures such as these that are left to the public.  That is the big question that remains even if the urgent question of the prevention of the sale can be answered.

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