Betrayal of Trust: the Sale of the Beit Paintings

Portrait of a bearded man, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

Portrait of a bearded man, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

There’s no question that the proposed sale of paintings from the Beit Collection at Russborough House next month at Christie’s may constitute the greatest loss of art to Ireland in this lifetime. Many in Ireland’s art history and museum community have decried the sale, the manner in which the paintings have already been exported out of the country, and the lack of proper public debate on the issue. My department (the School of Art History & Cultural Policy) last week published a letter to the Irish Times calling for the sale to be halted — and we are joined in our protest by the Irish Arts Review, Irish Museums Association, Irish Georgian Society, and An Taisce (links are all to separate appeals by each of these organisations).

Today we share details of a public press event addressing the forthcoming sale and urging immediate action:


As part of ongoing efforts to stop the sale of paintings from the historic Beit collection, and to discuss alternative plans for funding Russborough, a press conference has been organised by the School of Art History & Cultural Policy (UCD), the Irish Georgian Society, and An Taisce.

It will take place in Tailors’ Hall, Back Lane, Dublin 8, on Wednesday, 17 June, at 3 pm. Among the speakers will be Ian Lumley (An Taisce), Dr John Loughman (UCD), Dr Michael Ryan (former Director, Chester Beatty Library), and a representative of the Irish Georgian Society.

As a result of a remarkable act of generosity, one of the greatest of all private collections of Old Master paintings, formed in England by a German entrepreneur whose fortune was made in South Africa, has come to rest in Ireland. In 1976 Sir Alfred Beit, Bart., set up the Foundation which bears his name to ensure that his collection remains in perpetuity in the magnificent setting of Russborough at the foot of the Wicklow Hills.

These are the words of Professor Christopher Brown (former Director of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), writing in 1984. Three years later Sir Alfred and Lady Clementine Beit decided to bequeath seventeen of the most important paintings from their collection to the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI), while the kernel of their collection (30-40 pictures) remained at Russborough. It was hoped that the NGI paintings could occasionally be exhibited, with the rest of the historic Beit collection, at Russborough.

Sadly, recent actions by the Alfred Beit Foundation (ABF) have betrayed both the legacy of the Beits’ extraordinary benevolence to their adopted country and the trust invested in the Foundation by the Irish people to care for this collection. On 9 July six magnificent paintings, including two works by Peter Paul Rubens, will be sold by the ABF at Christie’s, London. Two 19th-century British landscapes and a drawing by Francois Boucher have been consigned to other sales to be held in June and July by the same auction house. In addition, an architectural painting by Jacques de Lajoüe (1687-1761), which had hung together with its pair in the Saloon at Russborough until last year, was apparently sold to a private individual by the ABF for a reported sum of €500,000. These recent sales, or proposed sales, are the latest in the liquidation of what the ABF has called “non-core assets”. In 2006 and 2013 the ABF disposed of collections of Italian Renaissance sculpture and Chinese porcelain.

The sale of these paintings will be an immeasurable loss to the national cultural patrimony. While some of these artists are represented in the National Gallery of Ireland, most of the paintings going under the hammer are either better in quality or are of a different type to those in our national collections. The ABF’s decision will also take us further away from Sir Alfred Beit’s aim in establishing his foundation in 1976, and opening the doors of Russborough to the public two years later – to make the house and its contents a centre for the study and appreciation of the fine arts in Ireland.

It is not too late to halt the sale and to consider other models of funding for Russborough House.

For further details, please email


5 thoughts on “Betrayal of Trust: the Sale of the Beit Paintings

  1. oglach says:

    As I’ve said previously, there are matters at hand more pressing than the loss of artwork; however, this prostitution of Irish cultural treasures is egregious, and everyone, regardless of their personal socio-economic conditions/concerns, needs only to make their voice heard and take a small step forward to stop the sale of these treasures. Even if we fail, we can at least bring to light the ongoing tragedy of wealthy peasants robbing from those of us less financially fortunate, and frankly, more deserving. Thank you.

  2. Stephen Mills says:

    seems these art works were owned by private people in Ireland , and have never been open to public exhibition come the cry goes up that they form part of any ‘cultural treasure’ of Ireland ..who thinks Rubens was Irish ?

    • Emily MFG says:

      That’s actually incorrect – the paintings have indeed been on public exhibition many times, though many have been in storage at the National Gallery for some time. They now part of a charitable trust, and so are not ‘privately owned’ in that strict sense. I think we would all agree also that the country’s cultural treasures include more than that which is reductively ‘Irish’ in origin…

  3. ciaranwalshnoe says:

    Russborough house receives a total of €21,000 in public funding (local authority and Fáilte Ireland) plus €251,000 approx. earned income. Anyone familiar with old buildings like this knows that these building are incredibly expensive to maintain. Russborough apparently has specific issues that need to be addressed as a matter of priority. Hence the sale of the family silver. That is regrettable but the disposal of marketable assets to protect the structure is is not the only issue. The real issue here is the failure of the state to adequately match the generosity of the Beits by making sure that the building and its collection isn’t left to the mercy of others. That is an issue that goes much wider than Russborough.

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