Summary of the 2014 Irish Art Market

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There was an absence of ‘star’ paintings at auction in 2014 as collectors hold onto their exceptional works in anticipation of a market improvement, writes John Mulcahy

THE best that can be said for the Irish art market in 2014 is that, with some noticeable exceptions, it didn’t markedly dis-improve. But neither did it rise overall with the property market. Turnover with the market leader, Adam’s, at €4.4m was somewhat down on 2013 although ahead of 2012. The main feature of the Dublin market was the absence of a single ‘star’ picture during the whole year. At Adam’s, the highest price achieved for any picture was €210,000. The previous year it had been almost double that at €400,000. In 2012 they had hit a jackpot of €1m for Yeats’ A Fair Day, Mayo. Fortunately for the fine art auctioneers they have in recent years widened their business with sales from historic memorabilia, Chinese and other oriental treasures and, of course, sales through the internet. But even with the anniversary of 1916 looming, the market for historic documents has declined considerably. At Adam’s an original copy of the 1916 Proclamation which sold for €240,000 in 2007 was knocked down for €90,000 last year. Also the market for ‘antique brown furniture’ has declined so much that de Veres announced that it would no longer sell this merchandise and concentrate instead on 20th -century design and modern furniture. Whyte’s reported a strong increase in the amount of private treaty sales, which accounted for 30% of their sales in 2014. Sheppard’s took the big move of opening a Dublin office after hitting it rich with Oriental sales down in Durrow. And the country house auction that might have seen some exceptional prices –at Bantry House in Cork– was cancelled at the last moment. However the most dramatic event of the year was the collapse in prices for three important works by Louis le Brocquy at the Sotheby’s sale on 10 December.

Table 1 Adam’s Top Results for 2014

1 James Adams 28.05.2014 L60 Roderic O’ Conor Chemin Mènant à Grez c.1889 €210,000
2 James Adams 03.12.2014 L60 Paul Henry Early Morning in Donegal €160,000
3 James Adams 03.12.2014 L61 Jack Butler Yeats Sleep by Falling Water €155,000
4 James Adams 28.05.2014 L12 William Connor Beero €97,000
5 James Adams 28.05.2014 L78 Sean Keating The Port Authority €80,000
6 James Adams 28.05.2014 L138 Sean Scully Passenger Line Black €80,000
7 James Adams 03.12.2014 L70 Walter Frederick Osborne Portrait of Mrs Meade €80,000
8 James Adams 28.05.2014 L74 Jack Butler Yeats A Dusty Rose €62,000
9 James Adams 03.12.2014 L13 Paul Henry West of Ireland Scene €60,000
10 James Adams 03.12.2014 L77 Paul Henry Connemara Cottages €50,000

Five of the top ten lots at Adam’s came from the estate of the late John Reihill thus contributing to almost one quarter of the total sales at Adam’s in 2014. Reihill had a penchant for Roderic O’Conor and it was his Chemin Mènant à Grez that made the top price for Adam’s of €210,000 last year (Illustrated). At the peak of the market in 2005, O’Conor’s La Lisiere du bois made £792,000 (incl premium) in Sotheby’s. So there is still a long way to come back. Reihill had also been the owner of Louis le Brocquy’s Cuchulainn 1V tapestry the price for which held up very well at €120,000 compared to his oils although this tapestry was one of nine made for the artist at Tabard Fréres & Soeurs Aubusson. But the story with Paul Henry was quite different. In 2013, three of Adam’s top four sales came from Paul Henry paintings and made a total of €690,000. In 2014, Adam’s had only one Paul Henry in their top ten which was his Early Morning in Donegal, a 51 x 61cm oil on canvas which made €160,000.They did, however, sell four other Henrys in the more average €40,000-60,000 price range. Perhaps the most unusual sale of the year for Adam’s was Sean Scully’s Passenger Line Black, a smallish oil on linen which made €80,000 in their May sale. With exhibitions for Scully coming up in both the NGI and the Crawford to mark his 70th birthday this year, perhaps we will see more of his work on the Irish market but to date his big oil canvases have appeared only in sales houses abroad.

Table 2 Whyte’s Top Results for 2014

1 Whytes 24.02.2014 L35 Walter Frederick Osborne Sunshine and Shadow, La Rue de L’Appot) Dinan, 1883 €69,000
2 Whytes 26.05.2014 L66 Gerard Dillon Home with the Catch €60,000
3 Whytes 29.09.2014 L35 Sir John Lavery Lady in Green (Mrs. Cara H.) €30,000
4 Whytes 29.09.2014 L64 Daniel O’ Neill Studio Interior €29,000
5 Whytes 24.02.2014 L28 Sir John Lavery A Lady in White (Portrait of Lady Lyle) €27,500
6 Whytes 26.05.2014 L67 Colin Middleton Seated Figure €25,000
7 Whytes 26.05.2014 L60 Nano Reid Salmon Fishing on the Boyne €24,000
8 Whytes 24.11.2014 L42 Gerard Dillon Little Boy Playing at God €24,000
9 Whytes 26.05.2014 L48 Mary Swanzy Trees €22,000
10 Whytes 26.05.2014 L36 Paul Henry Turf Stacks with Mountains Beyond €21,000

In common with other leading Irish auctioneers, Whyte’s say they found it difficult to get owners to sell rare and more valuable art at auction during 2014. They attribute this reluctance to several factors including the high rate of capital gains tax, the low or non-existent deposit rates in banks and the general feeling that prices for art of rarity and quality can only improve over the coming years. The usual favourites, Gerard Dillon, John Lavery, Daniel O’Neill, Colin Middleton, Mary Swanzy and Paul Henry supplied their best sales with Walter Frederick Osborne topping the list with the €60,000 achieved for his Sunshine and Shadow in their 24 February sale (Illustrated).

Table 3 Deveres Top Results for 2014

1 De Veres 25.03.2014 L51 Louis le Brocquy Fantail Pigeons €81,000
2 De Veres 25.03.2014 L56 Colin Middleton Girl with Stripes €72,000
3 De Veres 25.03.2014 L14 Roderic O’ Conor Still Life with a Compotier of Fruit €72,000
4 De Veres 25.03.2014 L57 Jack Butler Yeats The Sisters €60,000
5 De Veres 10.06.2014 L20 Sean Keating Unloading the Catch €52,000
6 De Veres 10.06.2014 L19 Jack Butler Yeats The Return from the Picnic €50,000
7 De Veres 30.09.2014 L39 Sir John Lavery The Viscountess Castlerosse Palm Springs €50,000
8 De Veres 30.09.2014 L59 Daniel O’ Neill Summer €32,000
9 De Veres 25.03.2014 L46 John Doherty Arckle Racing Marlborough Street €26,000
10 De Veres 10.06.2014 L32 Barrie Cooke Palometa €20,000

The highest price achieved for any one painting at de Veres was the €81,000 paid for one of le Brocquy’s Fantail Pigeons which he started painting from 1984. This one was signed and dated 1985. The interesting point about this sale is that the price fetched was lower than a similar work in the Pigeon series, both measuring 38x46cms which sold at Sotheby’s on 18 November at the hammer price of €99,000. As John de Vere White points out, this indicates some recovery in the prices for le Brocquy’s work during 2014.

As usual the London houses cherry-picked some of the principal Irish sales during 2014 with Christie’s recording the highest price for any Irish picture at £570,000 for John Lavery’s The Bathing Hour, Lido, Venice (Illustrated). Christie’s also sold Sean Scully’s highest sale at £450,000 for his Landline Blue at their 20 November sale. In keeping with the usual policy of limiting sales on the London auction market, Sotheby’s too were allocated only one Scully oil entitled Magenta Figure, which went for £270,000 in their 10 June sale. Bonhams best selling Irish picture was Roderic O’Conor’s Paysage Breton, which made £106,000 in their 18 November sale (Illustrated).

But the most remarkable feature of the London Irish sales in 2014 came at the end of the year when three important le Brocquy paintings sold at Sotheby’s slumped by up to 70% from what had been their 2006 sales prices in Dublin. The start of the crazy prices for le Brocquy’s work really dates from the then record-breaking £1.2m paid, reportedly by Michael Smurfit, for an early ‘Tinker’ work newly titled Travelling Woman with Newspaper sold at Sotheby’s in May 2000. But even this massive valuation was put in the shade in 2002 when Lochlann Quinn ‘donated’ le Brocquy’s The Family to the National Gallery, of which he was then chairman, for a 100% tax credit on a valuation of €2.78m accepted by the Revenue Office. Le Brocquy’s valuations thus moved into the stratosphere and all subsequent sales were influenced by this. In 2006 when the Sick Tinker Child (60x90cm) painted by le Brocquy in 1946 when the artist was just twenty-nine-years old came up for sale in Adam’s, it was sold for €820,000 which may have appeared a bargain at the time after the previous valuations. But in Sotheby’s December 2014 sale the same picture was sold for only €336,000. In the same auction, Fantail Pigeons bought at Adam’s in 2006 for €280,000 was sold for €124,000 and Image of WB Yeats bought for €310,000 was sold for €94,000.

It is reasonable to assume that the 2006 buyer was the self same person as the 2014 seller as the three lots were together in both auctions. It would appear therefore that some unfortunate punter has taken a loss of over €1.1m on the three pictures he bought for €1.65m in 2006 in Dublin and sold in 2014 for €554,000 in London. Caveat Emptor.

Please note that sterling figures are shown at hammer price. Prior to 2013 sterling prices included the buyer’s premium.