Beit collection works withdrawn from Christie's

June 23 2015

Image of Beit collection works withdrawn from Christie's

Picture: Christie's

I mentioned briefly, in my look at the forthcoming Old Master sales, the hoo-ha in Ireland about the consignment of 7 important pictures from the Beit Collection. These are housed in the magnificent Russborough House in Co. Wicklow (below), and were given to a charitable trust by the late Sir Alfred Beit. The trust, which manages the house, had claimed that the works could not be on show for 'security reasons' (some had been stolen twice already), and had to be sold to provide funds for the upkeep of the house.

In Ireland, there was considerable uproar, and questions were even asked in the Irish parliament. The role of the National Gallery in Ireland was also placed under scrutiny - should the pictures have been given an export licence? Many said not, but the Gallery said they did not have the money to save the pictures.

But now, with just days to go (the Irish Times reports) the Beit Foundation has announced that they want to withdraw the pictures, after 'private Irish donors' offered to buy the works. If the Foundation signed the standard Christie's sale contract, then there will be hefty withdrawal fees to be considered. These are calculated at 75% of the agreed seller's commission and buyer's premium which would have been due if the pictures sold at the lower estimate. In this case, the total of the combined lower estimates is £5.3m; there is a Rubens portrait head, above, at £2m-£3m, a Rubens sketch at £1.2m-£1.8m, a Teniers at £1.2m-£1.8m, as well as a Van Ostade, and two Guardis. We can't know what commissions were agreed between Christie's and the Beit Foundation, but I imagine the liability is potentially something like £500,000.

The standard Christie's contract also says that vendors may only withdraw pictures under certain circumstances - so the Beit Foundation will have to ask nicely. To be honest, my immediate sympathies are with Christie's, who have spent considerable time and resources marketing the paintings, and now have a large gap in their forthcoming sale. The Beit Foundation certainly does not come out of this with any glory - if these private donors exist, why did the Foundation not make more of an effort to find them before sending the pictures to Christie's? It looks like a failure of imagination: 'we need cash, so let's flog some paintings and hope nobody notices'. 

Anyway, if the pictures do remain at Russborough, then clearly something radical has to happen there about the way the pictures are regarded by the trustees. It would be a nonsense for the pictures to be 'saved', but then left in storage because they can't resolve the security situation.

And while we're at it, the procedures for exporting important works of art from Ireland need to reviewed too. In Ireland, legislation was passed in 1997 setting out the various value thresholds and cultural status requirements when it came to exporting works of art, much like we have here in the UK. But for some reason that law has never been brought into effect. Therefore, a 1945 law is still in force, by which the export of any painting, even if it is worth just 1 Euro, must apply for an export licence, which has to be personally signed by the director of the National Gallery - who I'm sure has better things to do with his time. You might think that such a situation would help protect the export of important Irish works of art. But in practice, unless you have a system like we do in the UK, where the passing of certain value thresholds sets a series of institutional alarm bells ringing, it actually becomes more difficult to have procedures designed to 'save' the important works. As far as I can tell, all that is needed to bring the 1997 law into effect is a ministerial signature.

Update - a reader tells me that when, last week, the Beit Foundation trustess refused to withdraw the works, they cited (to the Irish Arts Minister) a €1.4m fee payable to Christie's. More here.

Update II - Reuters reports that the proposed rescue deal involves an Irish tax relief scheme - and also that if the plans don't work out, then a sale will be back on the agenda in October. Quite why none of this was explored earlier, long before a sale at Christie's was planned, is a mystery. It sounds to me as if Russborough needs some new trustees.

Update III - All hail one of the trustess, Carmel O'Sullivan, who has consistently argued against the sale. And here in the Irish Times is an interview with the late Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, in which they say that their express wish is the keep the collection intact. 

Looking at the list of Russborough Trustees, it seems they Foundation is following a slightly outdated practice of appointing trustees from worthy societies, such as the Irish Georgian Society. This is all well and good, and we can't dispute the integrity of the current trustees. But really the Foundation needs to move into the 21st Century, and appoint one or two trustees who a) are rich, and b) know other people who are rich.

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