Following the spectacular series of results in late 2019, especially for blue-chip artists such as Paul Henry, William Scott, and Jack B Yeats, the ongoing recovery of the art market was expected to continue into 2020. However, after the usual quiet months of January and February, the Covid disaster struck and business almost ground to a halt for a few months as the auction houses struggled to adapt. Although online auctions were not unprecedented, they were usually reserved for the more modest end of the market, and some auction houses were more digitally advanced than others. However, the auction houses all adapted their modus operandi to the new reality and began to conduct auctions where both viewings and bidding were conducted online.
In 2020, auction houses adapted their modus operandi to the new reality and began to conduct auctions where both viewings and bidding were conducted online
A number of the more high-profile auctions were postponed to the autumn. The work on offer at these online auctions up to July still tended to be modest with few vendors inclined to offer major works in a problematic market and serious buyers unwilling to buy work they couldn’t physically view. Once the physical viewings commenced in July, though, and the pent-up demand was released, an extremely lively and profitable period ensued up to the end of the year. There were a number of new records set for both living and dead artists. You could speculate on a number of factors at play in this record-breaking rush to acquire art; buyers starved of dining, travel, and retail opportunities had plenty of disposable income to indulge their art interests. In addition, with the abiding low interest rates, many see art as a reasonable form of investment – and more pleasurable to have around than gold. Hence, the recurrence of the 2019 trend for high prices for the usual safe bets such as Paul Henry and Jack B Yeats. There were also those who took a punt on the enduring value of living artists such as John Shinnors and Donald Teskey – both of whom did consistently well over the year.
The highest price achieved by an Irish artist at auction this year was £680,000 for William Scott’s Deep Blues at Sotheby’s in November. Scott is unique amongst Irish artists in that most of his highest prices occur in the UK (only three of his top forty prices at auction over the years have been achieved in Ireland). After studying art in Belfast, Scott spent most of his subsequent life in England – apart from a brief stint in Dublin during the Second World War. To confirm the international reach of Scott, his Still Life, Green Edge sold at Christie’s in New York in December for $410,000. (His world-record price is still £920,000 for Bowl, Eggs and Lemon, sold at Christie’s in London in 2008.) In Dublin, Scott’s Still Life with Frying Pan sold at de Veres December auction for €200,000.
Jack B Yeats continued to do well although he fell short of surpassing his spectacular 2019 results at Whyte’s – in association with Christie’s – where he exceeded one million euro, twice, and had a string of very substantial sales. The dispersal of Ernie O’Malley’s high-quality collection of Yeats paintings was a major contributor here. In 2020, the highest price paid for a Yeats was for California, sold at Christie’s in July, for £489,375. This was an unusual, sun-kissed rendition of a place that the artist only visited in his imagination. Other notable Yeats sales were In Tír na nÓg, which sold for £310,000 at Sotheby’s in September, and The Sky Lovers, which sold at Christie’s in their January auction. Yeats’s best price in Dublin was €265,000 for Sleep by Falling Water at Adam’s December auction.
A world record was set for Paul Henry at Whyte’s September auction. A Sunny Day, Connemara sold for €420,000 – highlighting a trend whereby a host of good-quality Henry’s sold for substantial prices across all the auction houses. These included: Western Landscape for €330,000 at de Veres and Blue Hills of Connemara for €240,000 at Whyte’s, both in December. Another world record was set for Gerard Dillon when The Dreamer sold for £300,000 at Sotheby’s September sale. This was nearly double his previous best. Dillon is another Ulster artist who does well in London. His two previous best prices were for Lobster Pots (£170,000) and Self-portrait in Roundstone (£160,000) – both at Sotheby’s. Daniel O’Neill, a close friend of Dillon’s, also had a good year. The most striking of his results was the €58,000 hammer price for Flora at Adam’s in December. This guided at a modest €8,000 to €12,000, so the vendor got a very pleasant surprise. Morgan O’Driscoll achieved €54,000 for O’Neill’s Interior in November and Horseman Pass By sold for €27,000 at Adam’s, again in December.
Walter Osborne had a sadly attenuated career and quality work by him is a relative rarity at auction. There were only four works on offer throughout the year. A Tale of the Sea sold for €315,000 at Whyte’s in December – his best price since The Ferry (a much larger painting) in 2013. Osborne’s charming rural study, The Loiterers, sold for €90,000 at Adam’s in December.
Tony O’Malley’s prices have been fairly modest at auction in recent years. He lived a long and productive life and perhaps there has been a glut of his work available. Morgan O’Driscoll, however, achieved €60,000 for The Garden of Orpheus Summer at his July auction. This was the highest price paid for an O’Malley since 2008 – and not far off his record at auction of €77,000.
The highest price for a living artist was the £50,000 paid for Hughie O’Donoghue’s Vulcano at Sotheby’s in December. This was a large, striking work where the flowing, molten colour does justice to its title. John Shinnors continues to be popular and his top price at auction last year was the €44,000 achieved for Estuary Forms – Limerick at Morgan O’Driscoll in November. (It’s worth noting that the highest price paid for a Shinnors’ work at auction was the €70,000 the same painting yielded in 2008 – again at Morgan O’Driscoll.) Shinnors also achieved €25,000 for Three Cats at O’Driscoll’s November auction.
Donald Teskey had two very similar and very characteristic works on sale at Adam’s and Whyte’s in December. Coastal Report I and Coastal Report II featured the familiar and popular Teskey trope of waves crashing over rocks – spume symphonies. Both were acrylic on paper, almost identical in size, and they both had a lower guide price of €12,000. The symmetry continued at the auctions where Coastal Report I – Erris sold for €35,000 at Adam’s and Coastal Report II – Erris just pipped it with €36,000 at Whyte’s.
Another world record at auction this year, albeit at a more modest level, was the €21,000 for River Blackwater, October Evening, near Ballyduff, County Waterford by Arthur K Maderson. Maderson has been a hardy annual at auction over the years and his bucolic, impressionistic landscapes are perennially popular. Now in his eighties, he lives a reclusive life in County Waterford. A further very active artist (also in his eighties) who broke his auction record this year was sculptor John Behan. He currently combines trips to Greece (where he conducts workshops for refugees) with his steady output of bronze works dealing mostly with the Irish Famine – although his most recent exhibition embraced contemporary victims fleeing their countries for refuge in Greece and Italy. His Westport Famine Ship sold for €27,000 at Morgan O’Driscoll’s in June (estimate €10,000 to €15,000). His previous highest price was for £19,000 for The Blackrock Bull at Sotheby’s in 2013.
All the auction houses must be rather pleased with their overall results last year. For 2021, with lockdown still in place, expect some more records to be set.
John P O’Sullivan.