The Irish Art Market

William Scott, Blue Still Life sold by Whyte’s on 29 May 2017 lot 58 for €450,000
Sir John Lavery, The Summit of the Jungfrau sold by Sotheby’s on 27 September 2017 lot 314 for £170,000
Paul Henry Ferriters Cove, Kerry sold by Bonhams on 14 June 2017 lot 33 for £160,000
Jack B Yeats, The Night Has Gone sold by de Veres on 21 November 2017 lot 46 for €255,000
Jack B Yeats, By Merrion Strand sold by Adam’s on 22 November 2017 lot 62 for €450,000

 

Indications are strong that the Celtic Phoenix is rising; however buyers are exercising discernment, writes John P O’Sullivan in his assessment of the Irish art market 2017

Wall of Light Pink Pink, a large (226x190cm) oil on aluminium painting by Sean Scully, was the most expensive work by an Irish artist sold at an Irish or English auction house in 2017. It realised £650,000 at Christie’s June auction in London. The next highest price was €450,000 for Jack B Yeats By Merrion Strand, at Adam’s which tied with the price achieved by William Scott’s Blue Still Life at Whyte’s in May. Although this figure represented a loss on the £390,000 (€542,100) hammer sum paid for the latter at Christie’s in 2007, it was nonetheless the highest price ever paid for a Scott in this country.

Records have been broken, and a number of apparently irrational hammer falls saw dizzying prices

An article in the Financial Times, in December 2017, declared that for the international art market ‘2017 had been a smash. Records have been broken, and a number of apparently irrational hammer falls saw dizzying prices.’ This was in contrast to a somewhat depressed 2016 on the international front. Our local scene, devoid of Russian oligarchs and Arab princes, had a good 2016 and the upward trend in Irish art prices at auction continued in 2017. While not many living artists (aside from Sean Scully, and to a more modest degree John Shinnors and Donald Teskey) are enjoying this trend, there is an increasingly positive response to quality work by both living and dead artists. The tendency for the market to be more discerning also continued. A name is not enough anymore, it has to be a good quality piece also. For example, the market was flooded with work by Basil Blackshaw in 2017, some of it was of inferior quality and many of these works went unsold.

All of our major auction houses confirm the overall upward trend. David Britton maintained that ‘Adam’s is having a very good year, nearly 40% up on last year, helped significantly by various collections that are fresh to the market, such as the Gillian Bowler Collection in May and the UTV Art Collection in September.’ The €35,000 for FE McWilliam’s Women of Belfast III from the UTV collection was the highest price paid at auction for a piece from that series. Adam’s November auction did particularly well with the aforementioned Jack B Yeats work, By Merrion Strand, selling for €450,000, a substantial €150,000 above its lower guide price. Another notable price achieved at this auction was the €100,000 for Mary Swanzy’s The Storm – fully €80,000 above its guide price. This very fine Cubist work came from the collection of the late P J Mara and was the highest price achieved by Swanzy at auction since 2006. Adam’s November sale also featured work from another collection, that of writer and broadcaster Eamonn Mallie. These included a number of paintings by Basil Blackshaw. The most notable of these was Night Rider which was estimated at €100,000 to €150,000 and achieved a hammer price of €90,000. This melodramatic work was inspired by Blackshaw’s love of cowboy films. Blackshaw’s Portrait of Jude, also from the Mallie Collection, was sold for €32,000. The collection also featured a painting of Van Morrison by Blackshaw which The Irish Times described as ‘the ugliest painting by any artist to appear at auction in quite some time’. A harsh judgement perhaps, considering the subject matter, but not surprisingly this ugly duckling failed to sell.

Similar positive sentiments about the market were expressed by Morgan O’Driscoll who felt that ‘the market in 2017 was much stronger than 2016’. His auctions achieved between 85% and 92% sales, with ‘good pieces making exceptional prices’. A notable work by Walter Osborne, Rags, Bones and Bottles sold for €120,000 at O’Driscoll’s November sale. This piece was originally sold by Adam’s for IR£17,000 in 1981. (It had also been offered unsuccessfully at Sotheby’s in 2007 for an ambitious £300,000 to £400,000). Of living artists O’Driscoll noted that ‘John Shinnors was selling much better’. The latter judgement was confirmed by Shinnors’ misnamed Slitty (should have been Stilly) Morning, Estuary which went for €38,000 at de Veres November auction. This was €13,000 more than the lower end of his guide price. A more abstract work by Shinnors, Morning Interior, sold for €20,000 (twice the lower end of the guide price) at the same auction. Shinnors also achieved a healthy €14,500 for the dramatic Scarecrow at de Veres September sale. This was guided at €6,000 to €9,000. Shinnors has cut back sharply on his output since a bad accident a couple of years ago so the auction houses are perhaps benefitting from this scarcity.

At Whyte’s, director Ian Whyte stated that ‘It’s been our best year since 2007. With over €6 million of Irish art sold in the last two weeks by the Irish and English auction houses. I think we can say that the Celtic Phoenix is well aflight.’ In addition to the William Scott sale, Whyte’s achieved a notable €140,000 for Louis le Brocquy’s Adam and Eve in the Garden and €130,000 for Paul Henry’s An Irish Bog. Whyte’s November sale featured a very unusual nude by Brigid Ganly. It was a rare Cubist work by an artist who was known for her representational style – building her career on conventional still lifes, portraits, and landscapes. Basil Blackshaw’s impressionistic Horses Exercising sold for €32,000 at the same auction, although a number of his more formal horse paintings went unsold.

While Scully and William Scott were again the most sought after artists at auction, many of the old reliables such as Paul Henry, John Lavery and Jack B Yeats continued to prosper

While Scully and William Scott were again the most sought after artists at auction, many of the old reliables such as Paul Henry, John Lavery and Jack B Yeats continued to prosper. Henry’s Kerry landscape Ferriter’s Cove went for a handsome £160,000 at Bonhams and his West of Ireland Bog for €100,000 at Whyte’s; Lavery made £170,000 at Sotheby’s September sale for Summit of the Jungfrau; and Yeats achieved £100,000 for Railway Refreshment Room again at Sotheby’s and €92,00 for Against the Stream at Whyte’s.

Gerard Dillon also continues to do well. His Potato Patch sold for £38,000 at Sotheby’s in September and a striking late period pierrot painting, The Artist in the Country, for €39,000 at Adam’s. Seán Keating also remains a reliable seller. His strange allegorical painting Homo Sapiens: An Allegory of Democracy went for €62,000. The highest price sculpture was FE McWilliam’s Man and Wife, which achieved €70,000 at Whyte’s, while Ronan Gillespie made £27,000 for Secret Lovers at Sotheby’s. The year was characterised by a flood of work from the recently deceased Basil Blackshaw. In addition to the aforementioned Eamonn Mallie collection, the artist’s daughter released a lot of work belonging to the family.  Elsewhere there were doubts expressed about the provenance of some of his work and the Gardaí were called in to investigate. However, in addition to his healthy sales at Adam’s his magnificent horse painting The Fall went for £130,000 at Sotheby’s and Jack’s House (Pink) yielded €27,500 at de Veres. Patrick Collins hasn’t been doing that well at auction in recent years, but he had a number of high-quality paintings on offer; and in keeping with the trend towards reward for quality he achieved €33,000 for Bath at Adam’s. A rare appearance by John Luke yielded £150,000 for Northern Rhythm at Sotheby’s, a seminal painting by an important artist. Another notable sale was the £46,000 for The End of the Modern World by William Crozier at Sotheby’s. This painting took its title from Anthony Cronin’s epic poem of the same name (his final publication before his death in December 2016). The painting was guided at £15,000 to £20,000 and the sale occurred before his much-lauded retrospective opened at IMMA – an event that’s bound to add further lustre to his reputation.

* All prices quoted in tables and this essay are hammer prices and do not include buyer’s premium.

Irish Top 10  
Jack B Yeats By Merrion Strand sold by Adam’s on 22 November 2017 lot 62 for €450,000
William Scott Blue Still Life sold by Whyte’s on 29 May 2017 lot 58 for €450,000
Jack B Yeats The Night Has Gone sold by de Veres on 21 November 2017 lot 46 for €255,000
William Scott Still Life with Eight Forms sold by de Veres on 21 May 2017 lot 161 for €195,000
William Scott Still Life sold by de Veres on 4 April 2017 lot 34 for €140,000
Paul Henry An Irish Bog sold by Whyte’s on 29 May 2017 lot 16 for €130,000
Walter Frederick Osborne Rags, Bones and Bottles sold by Morgan O’ Driscoll on 4 December 2017 lot 50 for €120,000
Mary Swanzy The Storm sold by Adam’s on 22 November 2017 lot 11 for €100,000
Paul Henry West of Ireland Bog sold by Whyte’s on 2 October 2017 lot 21 for €100,000
Jack B Yeats Against the Stream sold by Whyte’s on 2 October 2017 lot 29 for €92,000

Irish/UK Top 10
Sean Scully Wall of Light Pink Pink sold by Christie’s on 26 June 2017 lot 34 for £650,000
Sean Scully Iris sold by Christie’s on 22 November 2017 lot 20 for £480,000
Jack B Yeats By Merrion Strand sold by Adam’s on 22 November 2017 lot 62 for €450,000
William Scott Blue Still Life sold by Whyte’s on 29 May 2017 lot 58 for €450,000
Jack B Yeats The Night Has Gone sold by de Veres on 21 November 2017 lot 46 for €255,000
William Scott Four Forms, Blue on White sold by Christie’s on 22 November 2017 lot 14 for £210,000
William Scott Still Life with Eight Forms sold by de Veres on 21 May 2017 lot 161 for €195,000
John Lavery The Summit of the Jungfrau sold by Sotheby’s on 27 September 2017 lot 314 for £170,000
Jack B Yeats The Sunset Belongs to You sold by Sotheby’s on 27 September 2017 lot 205 for £170,000
Paul Henry Ferriter’s Cove, Kerry sold by Bonhams on 14 June 2017 lot 33 for £160,000