“Old master” paintings worth millions of euro from the Beit Collection at Russborough House, Co Wicklow, are to be sold by auction at Christie’s in London to raise urgently needed funds for the upkeep of the stately home. The paintings and the house were left in trust to the people of Ireland by the late Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, an English aristocratic couple who became honorary Irish citizens in 1993.
Some of the paintings to be auctioned were among those stolen and recovered by gardaí and overseas police forces following major art robberies at the house on four occasions over 30 years between 1974 and 2002. The most notorious heists were by an IRA gang in 1974, led by British heiress Rose Dugdale, and in 1986 by Dublin criminal Martin “the General” Cahill.
The sale of the paintings, including six by Flemish and Dutch “old masters”, could raise over €11 million but could sell for more as the global art market is in an unprecedented boom. Among them are two works by Rubens, a Flemish painter who died in 1640 who is the most expensive “old master” in the world art market. Most of his major paintings are in the world’s leading art galleries and museums.
The paintings have been consigned to auction by the Alfred Beit Foundation, a charitable trust that owns and operates Russborough. The Irish Times understands that the Government was informed about the planned sale this week when Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys was briefed by the foundation.
Christie’s said the top lots in the sale would be “two magnificent works” by Rubens, one titled Head of a Bearded Man (estimate: £2-3 million); the other Venus and Jupiter (estimate: £1.2-1.8 million).
The group also includes a famous “Kermesse” scene (a depiction of 17th century Flemish village festivities) by David Teniers the Younger; a rare religious work by Adriaen van Ostade Adoration of the Shepherds that was once owned by Napoleon’s wife, the Empress Josephine; and a pair of views of Venice by Francesco Guardi. The paintings have already left Ireland, and been transported to New York where they will go on view to art collectors at Christie’s in Manhattan this weekend. They will then be sent to Hong Kong and London for further viewings ahead of the auction in July. Commenting on the sale, Judith Woodworth, chairwoman of the Alfred Beit Foundation, said “selling this small and very carefully selected group of paintings is an absolute necessity” in order to fund the “urgent need of ongoing major restoration, maintenance and improvements” at Russborough House. She said some of the paintings being sold “have not been on view or even in storage at the house for many years due to security concerns”, and “the sale of these works will ensure the next chapter of this great house for the continued enjoyment, education and appreciation of current and future generations.” The 300-year-old Russborough House in Blessington, Co Wicklow, is a major tourist attraction, and over one million visitors have visited the house since it first opened to the public in 1978.
Russborough House was purchased in 1952 by Sir Alfred Beit, a Conservative MP who had inherited a diamond-mining fortune and a world-class art collection. He and Lady Beit (nee Clementine Mitford) donated the main part of the collection – worth an estimated €100 million, and including Vermeer’s Lady Writing A Letter With Her Maid – to the National Gallery of Ireland in 1987. In 1993 the government honoured this act of generosity by granting Irish citizenship to the couple, the first time Irish citizenship was awarded to British subjects. Sir Alfred Beit died in 1994 aged 91; Lady Beit died in 2005 aged 89.
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