Twenty Twenty-one was a very good year for Irish art at auction both here and in the UK as buyers emerged from the their Covid cocoons. The easing of restrictions on physical viewing, the pent-up demand and most significantly the high volume of available funds through lack of spending opportunities all payed a part. A significant number of artists, both living and dead, achieved record prices.
The dominant figures again in terms of hammer prices were Paul Henry and Jack B. Yeats, with William Orpen, Sean Scully and John Lavery also prominent. In the UK auction houses, Barry Flanagan achieved a series of spectacular results with Thinker on Rock topping them (£780,000 at Christie’s) . William Scott had a quieter year than usual due perhaps to the paucity of major works consigned. His pears however proved popular with his two best results being for Five Pears (£150,000 at Bonham’s) and Pear Study (£130,000 at Christie’s).
The highest price for an Irish work of art at auction in 2021 was the €1,400,000 paid at Whyte’s in November for Shouting, a late period Jack B. Yeats’ painting. It features three figures who appear to be drunkenly carousing – perhaps after a night of revelry. At 101.6 x 152.4 cms it is one of the largest paintings completed by the artist. While various publications claimed this as a world record for Yeats, this is not quite true. It equals the world record for the painter at an Irish auction house. The artist’s Reverie sold for exactly the same price (at Whyte’s in association with Christie’s) in 2019. And, due to the vagaries of the exchange rate between Sterling and the Euro, the £1,120,000 (€1,700,000) hammer price for The Wild Ones at Sotheby’s in 1999 remains the record price for a Yeats. In an auspicious year for the artist (the 150th centenary of his birth) he supplied six of the top ten best-selling works sold at Irish auction houses in 2021.
A surprising addition to the very select list of Irish artists who have exceeded €500,000 at auction was the little known John Fergus O’Hea
A surprising addition to the very select list of Irish artists who have exceeded €500,000 at auction was the little known John Fergus O’Hea. To say that he is a rare figure at auction is to overstate his presence. He has been non-existent up to July of this year when Christie’s sold the Barney Eastwood collection. Amidst works by Alfred Munnings and Jack B. Yeats lurked Punchestown Races, a rare oil painting by the Cork-born political cartoonist. Despite being condemned as “an out and out nationalist” by the British press, O’Hea made a living from his cartoon work in both Ireland and England. This painting is a fine historical record of the colourful crowd attending the racecourse in 1868. It was estimated at £100,000 to £150,000 but finally went under the hammer at £560,000. One suspects that some very deep pockets associated with the Irish racing scene may have been competing.
Amongst those achieving record prices for their work in 2021 was Grace Henry – long and unfairly seen as a satellite around her erstwhile husband Paul Henry, with whom she spent a mere 20 of her 85 years. Grace was a considerable talent in her own right with a style more infused with European influences than Paul. Her painting The Fortune Teller on offer with a modest estimate of €5,000 to €7,000 sold at Whyte’s for a handsome €37,000. Another female artist, Katherine MacCausland, who has also largely travelled under the radar, equalled her record price of €30,000 at Adam’s in March. MacCausland was born in Dublin but spent the bulk of her artistic career in France where she moved in circles that included Gauguin and Roderic O’Conor. Although much influenced by Impressionism, this work was painted in the Realist style. Another record-breaker was Harry Clarke whose exquisite stained-glass work Bluebeard’s Last Wife sold for €165,000 at Adam’s in March. This was double the best price previously achieved by Clarke.
After the Yeats painting the next highest price at auction was for John Lavery’s The Terrace, Cap d’Ail. This study of gracious living on the Cote D’Azur also came from the Barney Eastwood collection at Christie’s in July. It sold for £950,000 after guiding at £400,000 to £600,000.
The results for Dan O’Neill in 2021 continued to disappoint. His best price was the €40,000 paid at Adam’s for Looking West. Apart from the €125,000 paid for Summer at Morgan O’Driscoll in 2020 he has never recaptured the heady days from 2005 to 2008 where he regularly commanded substantial six-figure sums.
There were striking results for two of our contemporary artists. Cian McLoughlin was invited to consign a work by Sotheby’s for its Irish Art auction in November. He submitted Eruption, one of his crowd paintings, full of energy and colour. It guided at £12,000 to £18,000 and sold for £42,000 – by some way his best price at auction. John Shinnors’ Scarecrow Heads attracted a lot of attention at De Veres’ June auction. The work consisted of 18 individual canvases, each measuring 91 x 91 cms. Although many felt that each individual piece could stand on its own, the artist insisted that they be sold as a unit and not broken up. To this end the wily Limerick man had only signed the last of the 18 pieces. For those of a speculative nature the €70,000 to €100,000 estimate must have been tempting. In the end the lot went for €125,000, comfortably surpassing his previous best of €70,000.
Donald Teskey continued to be much in demand, and his recurring crashing waves over rocks motif proved especially popular. His highest prices were the €40,000 paid for Coastal Report III at De Veres in November and €38,000 for The Tempest at Morgan O’Driscoll.
The most startling rise at auction in recent years amongst living Irish artists has been that of Genieve Figgis. However, her works are largely confined to auction houses in New York and Hong Kong. Born in Dublin in 1972, she attended Gorey School of Art in 2006 as a mature student. She first emerged on the auction scene in 2019 when her Birth of Venus sold at Philip’s in Hong Kong for an extraordinary €220,000 (HKD 1,900,000). She continued to achieve spectacular six-figure results in 2021 for her highly-coloured, Ensoresque paintings. Her best result was $190,000 for Victoria and Albert (The Royal Family) at Christie’s in New York. On this side of the world she achieved £48,000 for Family Portrait at Bonham’s in April.
Auction coup of the year has to go to the individual who purchased William Orpen’s After the Ball at Cobb’s Auctioneers in New Hampshire for $60,000 (€51,000) in August 2021. New Hampshire is a state where I suspect those conversant with the Irish art market are thin on the ground. The purchaser wasted no time in consigning the piece to De Veres where it sold for €310,000 in its Outstanding Irish Art auction in November. On the subject of Orpen I noticed that his Still Life of Mushrooms Falling from a Basket sold at Gardiner Houlgate in Corsham, a town near Bath, for €1,880. This seems an extraordinarily low price for an oil (40 x 60 cms) by one of our most celebrated artists. Shop around folks.
John P O’Sullivan.