There were standout sales in 2019 but the next tier of Irish artists needs to emerge soon to maintain our high level of success at auctions, writes Des O’Sullivan
That was the year that was. A look back at 2019 now rapidly drawing to a close reveals that the antique, art and collectibles markets ably responded to all the global uncertainties out there and showed itself resilient.
There was no shortage of happenings and many standout events in 2019. In the world of art the sale of the Ernie O’Malley collection by Whyte’s in association with Christie’s was the most valuable art auction ever held in this island. It brought in a cool €5.5 million and helped Whyte’s achieve a record €9.5 million sales tally for Irish art sold through five carefully curated sales in 2019.
This auction underlined a truism oft uttered by auctioneers: The best goods will practically sell themselves. Something that is rare, unusual or of high quality is not difficult to sell. And the collection of the Irish 1916-1922 revolutionary, who went on to publish two books about his experiences, had some rare Yeats prizes.
There were five major Yeats paintings including Reverie which made €1.4m and Evening in Spring which made €1.3m. The white glove sale of 100 lots included sketches by Yeats and work by artists like Mainie Jellett, Evie Hone, Louis le Brocquy, Colin Middleton, Maurice MacGonigal, May Guinness and Norah McGuinness.
Sheppards in Durrow had no problem in finding international buyers willing to travel and compete for a rare Qianlong flask discovered at a routine valuation at Blarney Castle in September. The Chinese moon flask sold for a hammer price of €610,000.
It was a good year for painters like William Scott, Hugh O’Donoghue and Irish women artists and sculptors like Rowan Gillespie. There was a new world record for Mainie Jellett at the O’Malley Collection auction. And there was momentum in the works of a new generation of Irish artists.
Our art market is fundamentally conservative, underpinned by artists like Yeats, Orpen, Paul Henry, le Brocquy and the like. The best works from these stalwarts acts like money in the bank. The problem for the art market is many of these works are in museum collections or private hands and will not be seen again in the salesrooms anytime soon.
There is no shortage of great Irish artists but as yet another tier of people whose work will reliably do well at auction needs to be found. The market works hard at this with varying degrees of success. There are indications the overwhelming conservative of Irish art taste is beginning to move.
New artists are being introduced in the salesrooms and developing the sort of track record that buyers at the upper levels need. This is generally a slow process and it goes on with greater or lesser degrees of success.
Among the top lots at Sotheby’s annual sale of Irish art in London, headed by A Paris of the West by Yeats which made £675,000 at hammer, was The Owl Run by Hughie O’Donoghue (£93,750) and Failing Better, a maquette by Rowan Gillespie (£80,255). A once-off rarity at this sale was Cork Bowler by Gabriel Hayes (1909-1978) — an artist best remembered for her sculptured panels on the Department of Industry on Kildare Street — which sold for £81,250 to a private US buyer.
Morgan O’Driscoll, the Skibbereen-based auctioneer, now holds viewings for his major sales in London and New York. As well as bringing Irish art to a wider audience it is helping to develop a new stream of international buyers, as is the internet. RTÉ’s William Scott mural made a hammer price of £187,500 at Sotheby’s in London, well within the estimate of £150,000-£250,000. Abstract Painting (Raidió Telefís Éireann mural) was commissioned by architect Ronald Tallon of Scott, Tallon and Walker in 1966.
A second William Scott work in the sale, White with Black Predominating, from the Patrick and Antoinette Murphy collection sold for £275,000 at hammer.
Red on Red by William Scott made a hammer price of €150,000 over an estimates of €150,000-£200,000 at James Adam this month. A second Scott in the sale, Still Life with Pan and Bowl, failed to find a buyer. At this sale Robert Ballagh’s portrait of J.P. Donleavy made a hammer price of €30,000.
The impressive single-owner Patrick and Antoinette Murphy Collection at James Adam included work by Yeats, Henry, Mainie Jellett, Evie Hone, May Guinness, Mary Swanzy, Nano Reid, Grace Henry, le Brocquy, Barrie Cook, Tony O’Malley and many more. The White Tower by Mary Swanzy, which had been part of her widely acclaimed retrospective, sold for a hammer price of €90,000.
Allegory, an Aubusson tapestry by Louis le Brocquy, sold for €92,000 at de Veres, which sold Patrick O’Reilly’s GI Bear for €80,000.
The Irish auction market is varied and collectibles are an important part of it. A walking cane owned by Michael Collins made €11,000 at de Veres over a top estimate of €4,000.
A Memorandum and Final Draft of the Belfast “Good Friday” Agreement, signed by the major participants, sold for €28,000 at Whyte’s. The Seamus Kearns postcard collection at Whyte’s last January made €150,000 over a top estimate of €80,000 and a first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses made €85,000 at Fonsie Mealy in June.
Matthews of Oldcastle, Co Meath, holds its annual holiday auction at the Dukes Building, Kells, today and Monday, 2pm each day. More than 940 lots will feature in the auction.