After the post-Covid loosening of purse strings in the latter half of 2021, there were mixed reports as to whether the market for Irish art had carried this momentum into 2022. The consensus amongst auction houses was generally positive, but suggested consolidation rather than expansion. This is hardly surprising, considering the international financial climate and general air of uncertainty about the future. Arabella Bishop of Sotheby’s Ireland described 2022 as ‘another strong year’ and was particularly pleased with the emergence of young stars such as Jack Coulter and Cian McLoughlin. Rory Guthrie at de Veres agreed with this sentiment: ‘The market definitely maintained its strength from the previous year – more so at the upper end, where we had a 90% sale rate for our two Outstanding Irish Art auctions.’ Over at Whyte’s, Peter Whyte saw the demand as ‘much the same as 2021’. He felt that the end of Covid restrictions meant that people were spending their discretionary income more widely, but that this was balanced by the increase in the inflation rate, causing others to buy art and collectibles as a hedge.
Kieran O’Boyle in Bonhams’ Dublin office reported a doubling of staff size internationally for the company due to acquisitions in 2022 – an expression of some optimism for the future of the international art market. There was also an increase in digital activity at Bonhams, with 91% of its sales completed online.
There was a noticeable increase in online auctions generally. Morgan O’Driscoll were in the vanguard, with almost ceaseless activity throughout the year. They even managed to run a successful online auction in the dog days of early January 2023.
There were a number of world records set for Irish artists in 2022: for John Lavery (1856–1941) in London; Sean Scully in New York; Mainie Jellett (1897–1944) in France; John Behan in Cork; and William Ashford (1746–1824) in Dublin. The most notable single result last year was the £2,400,000 achieved for John Lavery’s The Croquet Party (1890–93) at Christie’s in March. It depicted an upper-class idyll (ladies in flowing white dresses, blue sea and green sward) that seems eons removed from our darkened times. This world record for Lavery was exactly twice his previous best price – £1,200,000 for The Bridge at Grez (1883) in 1998, also at Christie’s. If you exclude Francis Bacon (1909–1992), whom we have only a tenuous right to claim, this was by some way the best price for any Irish artist last year. And it was the second-highest price ever for a work of art by an Irish artist, only surpassed by the £1,800,000 (€2,900,000) paid for William Orpen’s (1878–1931) Portrait of Gardenia St George with Riding Crop at Sotheby’s in 2001.
Sean Scully has long been a major player on the international market and his star shows no sign of waning. Song (1985) sold for $1,650,000 at Sotheby’s in New York – a world record for the Inchicore native. There was another world record set at Adam’s in June: €460,000 for William Ashford’s Pair of Views of Dublin Bay Looking North and South (1774–5). This was nearly double the 18th-century artist’s previous best.
Jack B Yeats (1871–1957) again dominated the top ten best-selling artists on the home market, with The Bridge at Skibbereen (1919) coming in highest at €440,000 – again at Adam’s. William Scott (1913–1989) continued to command substantial interest, although there was a dearth of major works by him. His Frying Pan – Still Life (1947) went for £600,000 at Christie’s in October. Paul Henry (1877–1958) was ubiquitous at the high-end auctions, his best price being the €210,000 for Village by the Marsh (1934–5) at Morgan O’Driscoll in November.
Roderic O’Conor (1860–1940) also made the top ten, with his Paysage aux Arbres (c. 1892) selling for €300,000 at de Veres in June. This was a particularly satisfactory result for the Kildare Street auctioneers, as the work had been languishing unsold in a French auction house with a mistaken date of 1922. This placed it well outside O’Conor’s golden period in the early 1890s, when it was actually painted at the art colony of Pont-Aven in Brittany. The revised date revived interest and de Veres’ prescience was rewarded.
John Behan is now in his 85th year and still going strong. He held an exhibition of recent work relating to the plight of international migrants at the Solomon Gallery. The connection with our own famine and emigrant history, a lifelong concern of Behan’s, is obvious. His work is always popular at auction and he too broke a world record this year with his bronze Atlantic Famine Ship selling for €36,000 at Morgan O’Driscoll in November.
While sales of Irish art take place predominantly in the UK and Ireland (and occasionally in the USA), it was interesting to see Sotheby’s extending their Irish art brief into France by holding an Ireland/France: Art and Literature auction in May 2022. There, alongside a first edition of Joyce’s Ulysses and rarities by Samuel Beckett, were paintings by Roderic O’Conor, William Leech (1881–1968) and Harry Kernoff (1900–1974), amongst many others. O’Conor’s Rocks and Foam St Guénole (c. 1898) went under the hammer for €280,000 – his second-best result in 2022 (surpassed only by the €300,000 paid for Paysage aux Arbres at de Veres). There was also a world record for a work on paper by Mainie Jellett at this auction. Pieta (1936), an exquisite gouache-on-paper painting, sold for €70,000.
Amongst living artists, those to do well (in addition to Scully) included Genieve Figgis, John Shinnors, Donald Teskey and Hughie O’Donoghue. Figgis operates in a different realm, both geographically and financially, to her male peers. From her operating base in rural Wicklow, her work finds its way into auction houses in London, Paris, Shanghai and especially Hong Kong. The highest price paid for a living Irish artist was the 3,200,000 Yen (around €456,000) paid for her Debutante Ball (2017) at Christie’s Shanghai in March. Her Wedding Party (2019) sold at Phillips in Hong Kong for 3,500,000 Hong Kong dollars (around €372,000). Based on auction results, Figgis’ main market seems to be in the East, with Hong Kong and Shanghai featuring frequently.
Teskey’s mining of our west coast for images continued to be very popular. His best price last year was €55,000 at de Veres for Ocean Frequency I – €1,000 less than the record he set in the halcyon days of 2007. John Shinnors maintained his popularity with €30,000 for Lighthouse, Man’s Twin Cats and Washing at Adam’s, and €27,500 for an early work, the striking and moody Hook Lighthouse, at de Veres. Hughie O’Donoghue, too, had a run of good results in 2022. The best of them was the €57,000 he achieved for The Yellow Man II (2008) at Adam’s in June. This was the amiable Mancunian’s second-highest result at auction.
Looking ahead to 2023, a number of the auction houses report a growing demand for Mainie Jellett. William Scott should continue to be sought after and Patrick Collins seems currently underpriced. Among the younger guns, we should look out for Jack Coulter and Cian McLoughlin. There is a developing market for ceramic artworks globally and work in this medium by Irish artists, such as Sonja Landweer (1933–2019) and Gráinne Watts, are sure to command attention.
John P O’Sullivan.
Top 10 Irish euro sales
||A Pair of Views of Dublin Bay, Looking North and South|
|Adam’s||€440,000||01.06.2022||Jack Butler Yeats
||The Bridge at Skibbereen (1919)|
|De Veres||€300,000||14.06.2022||Roderic O’Conor||Paysage Aux Arbres|
|De Veres||€250,000||14.06.2022||Jack B. Yeats
||A Lament (The Funeral of Harry Boland|
|Sotheby’s||€280,000||16.06.2022||Roderic O Conor||Rocks and Foam, St Guenole|
|De Veres||€230,000||14.06.2022||Roderic O’Conor||The Breaking Wave|
|Whyte’s||€220,000||26.09.2022||Jack Butler Yeats||The Changing Dawn|
|Adam’s||€220,000||01.06.2022||Jack Butler Yeats
||The Folded Heart|
|Morgan O’ Driscoll||€210,000||01.11.2022||Paul Henry||Village by the Marsh|
|Whyte’s||€200,000||06.06.2022||Jack Butler Yeats||The Little Sister of the Gang (Fitzwilliam Square)|
|Whyte’s||€200,000||07.03.2022||Paul Henry||Lobster Fishermen off Achill|
Top 10 UK Sterling sales
|Sotheby’s||£37,500,000||29.06.2022||Francis Bacon||Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud|
|Christie’s||£2,435,000||22.03.2022||Sir John Lavery||The Croquet Party|
|Sotheby’s||£600,000||29.06.2022||Sean Scully||Landline Yellow, 2014|
|Christie’s||£600,000||19.10.2022||William Scott||Frying Pan – Still Life, 1947|
|Sotheby’s||€280,000||16.06.2022||Roderic O Conor||Rocks and Foam, St Guenole|
|Christie’s||£230,000||19.10.2022||William Scott||Three and One No. 1|
|Sotheby’s||£180,000||23.11.2022||Jack Butler Yeats||Going to the Races|
|Christie’s||£80,000||19.10.2022||Patrick Heron||3 Red|
|Christie’s||£78,000||20.06.2022||John Lavery||On The Sands|
|Sotheby’s||£75,000||22.11.2022||Gerard Dillon||Village on the Hill|