After a century of dispute, the National Gallery in London has indicated that 39 paintings in the collection might morally, although not legally, belong to Ireland after all. 

The paintings, which include work by Renoir, Manet and Monet, belonged to the art dealer and collector Sir Hugh Lane, who died in the German attack on the RMS Lusitania in 1915.

Born in County Cork in 1875, Sir Hugh was one of the foremost collector Impressionist paintings in Europe of his day.

Although his will bequeathed his collection to London, a codicil written in 1915 bequeathed it to Dublin. However, as it was not witnessed, the collection has remained in London.

Despite several attempts over the ensuing years to negotiate with successive British Prime Ministers, only compromises have been achieved. In 1959 it was agreed that half of the Lane Bequest would be lent and shown in Dublin every five years. In 1993 this increased to 31 of the 39 paintings. In 2008 it was agreed that the final eight, which are among the most valuable, have been divided into two groups that can be lent for six years at a time. The first four, Les Parapluies by Auguste Renoir, Portrait of Eva Gonzales by Edouard Manet, Jour d’Ete by Berthe Morisot and View of Louveciennes by Camille Pissarro, went on view in Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane on Wednesday.

Introducing a lecture given to mark the centenary of Sir Hugh Lane’s death, Nicholas Penny, the Director of the National Gallery, said: “The National Gallery claims legal ownership of the paintings bequeathed by Sir Hugh Lane, but has long conceded that Dublin has some moral claim to them.”

He added that “there are so many cultural institutions which should, even if they don’t, acknowledge that some other institution or some other country, has some sort of moral claim on the works of art in their possession.”

“To have reached a compromise of the kind we have is something that I’m very pleased that we can advertise. We must always welcome people who feel we haven’t gone far enough in the type of acknowledgement we have made.”

Barbara Dawson, director of Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, stressed the great benefit that such paintings can bring to a public institution, and is quoted in the Guardian as saying: “Nicholas Penny’s remarks are the clearest public acknowledgement of Dublin’s right to these paintings and are very welcome.”

“They build on the legal agreement between the two institutions which allows the paintings to be shared between the two institutions and which acknowledges Dublin’s right to these works. However, as Hugh Lane bought these works with the specific purpose of building a gallery of modern art for Dublin, the Hugh Lane gallery continues to seek return of ownership.”