The National Gallery is considering buying some of the 10 paintings to be sold by the Jefferson Smurfit group in an auction in London next May.

In a letter to Smurfit chief executive Gary McCann, National Gallery chairman Lochlann Quinn has asked for gallery staff to be given an early viewing so it can identify which paintings it might buy.

London auction house Sotheby's expects to fetch €2.6m for the batch of Irish paintings which include important works by Sir William Orpen, Jack B Yeats and Louis Le Brocquy.

In his letter, released to RTE under the Freedom of Information Act, Quinn says the 'early information' would allow the board to 'organise its finances' in advance of any bid.

He said the gallery has a brief to purchase and acquire pictures of exceptional merit for display to the public, particularly paintings by Irish artists.

Smurfit's chairman Michael Smurfit has built up a 500 piece art collection over the last 20 years, which is viewed by art experts as being one of the finest private collections of Irish art.

The decision to sell 10 paintings follows the takeover of the company by US venture capital group Madison Dearborn last year.

AIB chairman Lochlann Quinn also owns extensive collection of Irish art, some of which is exhibited in Dublin's Merrion Hotel, in which he is a major investor.