Northern Ireland

Hunt for Stormont's missing art treasures initiated by finance minister

Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said some of the paintings may have been removed "by accident" from government offices
Image caption Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said some of the paintings may have been removed "by accident" from government offices

A Sinn Féin minister has said some pieces of work from Stormont's art collection may be missing.

Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said some of the paintings may have been removed "by accident" from government offices where they hung, unseen for decades.

He has now begun a work of "reclamation" so the collection can be seen by tax payers in public buildings.

The collection was started by the then unionist Prime Minister, Terence O'Neill, in the 1960s.

Many of the works hang on gilded walls seen only by civil servants and government ministers.

Other works have been hidden away for years in racks at stables behind Stormont Castle.

Mr Ó Muilleoir inherited the collection when he became finance minister.

Image caption The collection was started by the then Unionist Prime Minister Terence O'Neill in the 1960s

During an exclusive preview for the BBC's The View programme, he said: "The art collection is a great treasure which belongs to the community.

"What I want to do with that treasure is liberate it and let people see and enjoy the art collection which, of course, they paid for over many years.

"I'd like to see it outside of a stuffy ministerial office.

"Let's see it in a hospital, let's see it in our health and well-being centres, let's see it in our job benefit offices, let's see it everywhere where people gather."

But the problem is no-one knows if the collection is intact.

The minister said: "What happened was that people were removing paintings; maybe somebody, by accident on retiring or leaving, maybe took a piece with them.

Image caption One of the pieces from the 1,400 art collection at Stormont

"The first thing we need to check is are the 1,400 pieces available? Of those 1,400 pieces what are the real gems?"

I asked him if he meant he did not know how many, if any, of the 1,400 were unaccounted for.

Experts

"No, we don't know and, in fact, we don't know do we have 1,400 pieces. So, we're starting a work of reclamation to ask, for the first time this century, what do we own? Can we then release and empower the public by allowing them to see those pieces of art?"

Helping him with the work is a six-person panel of experts lead by the renowned artist Denise Ferran.

Image caption Danny Kinahan, an art expert who formerly worked as the Irish representative of the auction house Christies, is familiar with some of the paintings

"I've been asked to assess the collection, not its value but where it came from; how it got here; what were the artists painting; how were they collected," she said.

"More the cultural background of the work itself."

Ulster Unionist MP for South Antrim Danny Kinahan, an art expert, is familiar with some of the paintings.

'Question of taste'

"Some of it, some people will not like at all. Some of it other people will love," he said.

"That's the question of taste. But I think it's right that you get it out in front of people. The museums have great art that's never seen.

"There's government buildings that have great art that's never seen, but it is all being recorded and we need to join that up with the finance minister's plans."

Well-known artist Rita Duffy is not so sure.

Image caption Rita Duffy said she did not think putting a 60-year-old landscape painting into a job centre was appropriate

"I think to have a finance minister that's even looking at paintings is kind of interesting," she said.

"I think it's my job, as an artist, to push him on in the right direction and I don't think putting a 60-year-old landscape into a job centre is really, you know, where its at.

"And maybe the committee that he's formed, maybe they'll figure that out and talk about that.

"I actually think it would be better off hanging in someone's office.

"If it's good enough why couldn't we have that collection in a municipal gallery?"

A new gallery seems to be out of the picture for now.

However, the minister wants to return to the policy of buying a small amount of work from young artists every year so that the collection can grow.

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