Outrage in Ireland over Sale of Old Masters, Including Two Paintings by Rubens

Russborough House cites financial struggles and security concerns as main reasons.

Ireland’s Russborough House foundation is facing criticism for its decision to consign nine artworks, including six old master paintings, to auction at Christie’s London next month, the New York Times reports.

The works—which include masterpieces by Peter Paul Rubens, David Teniers the Younger, and Francesco Guardi—have been estimated to fetch a combined $12.5 million.

The highlights of the lot are two oil on oak paintings by Rubens: Head of a Bearded Man (with a presale estimate of $3.2 million to $4.7 million) and Venus Supplicating Jupiter (with a presale estimate of $1.9 million to $2.8 million).

Justifying the controversial decision, the foundation said that the money is urgently required to restructure its finances. The Irish economy was hit hard by the Eurozone crisis and, amid tough austerity measures, government assistance to cultural institutions has not been forthcoming.

Detail from Peter Paul Rubens' Portrait of a Bearded Man (ca. 1620) Photo: Christie's via Art Market Monitor

Detail from Peter Paul Rubens’ Portrait of a Bearded Man (ca. 1620) 
Photo: Christie’s via Art Market Monitor

The foundation also cited security concerns as one of the main reasons behind the sale. Russborough House has been the target of four major art heists, including a raid by the Irish Republican Army in 1974—in which 19 paintings, including works by Jan Vermeer, Rubens, Francisco de Goya and Thomas Gainsborough, were stolen and subsequently recovered—as well as a robbery in 1986, when 17 paintings were taken.

“The paintings for auction have not been on display at Russborough or elsewhere for nearly 20 years and with no prospect of them returning to Russborough, because of their value, it was a relatively sensible option to select these paintings for auction,” Eric Blatchford, CEO of the foundation, told the New York Times.

But not everyone is convinced by the arguments given by the foundation. National heritage organizations, such as An Taisce, have urged the Irish government to intervene. The Irish Arts Review magazine, meanwhile, has launched a petition to stop the auction.

“The gift was made to the Irish people,” Carmel O’Sullivan, of Trinity College Dublin and member of the Russborough House board of trustees, said. “As trustees, it is our responsibility, our moral responsibility, to preserve that for the Irish people.”

Russborough House is located ca. 45 minutes south of Dublin Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Russborough House is located 45 minutes south of Dublin
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, Heather Humphreys, the minister for arts, heritage, and the Gaeltacht, has set up a special committee to find solutions for supporting small and historic public collections that, like Russborough House, face challenges to cover the costs of maintenance, staff, and security.

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