Summary of the 2015 Irish Art Market

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Masters like Lavery and Yeats continue to perform well but an overall lack of high end artworks being offered for sale is holding the market back, writes John Mulcahy.

DURING 2015, the Irish Stock Exchange Index rose by something over one third and the property market too advanced, particularly in Dublin. But unfortunately the same cannot be said for the Irish art market, although no directly comparable index is available. The total volume of sales held up fairly well with the three biggest houses all reporting an average of 80% lots sold at their pre-Christmas sales. But the high prices were lacking. The highest price paid for any picture at auction in Ireland in 2015 was the €220,000 paid for Yeats’ Man in a Train Thinking at de Vere’s December sale. Whyte’s did well with €175,000 achieved for Orpen’s Gladys Cooper and €135,000 for John Lavery’s A Bacchante, but the real surprise for a Yeats painting was the sum of €210,000 paid at Morgan O’Driscoll’s sale in December for Business. A revelation at Morgan O’Driscoll was the €77,500 achieved for The Power by a little-known artist called Michael Flatley (Illustrated)! Putting all of these in the shade, of course, was the £509,000 (including premium) paid at Sotheby’s Irish Art sale on 21 October for John Lavery’s Japanese Switzerland, the very charming portrait of the artist’s wife Hazel and her daughter Alice, in the snow in Switzerland, just before the outbreak of the First World War (Illustrated). This price more than trebled what the same picture made at auction in 1966.

Table 1 Adam’s Top Results, 2015

1 James Adam 27.05.2015 L60 Jack Butler Yeats Roundstone, Connemara €58,000
2 James Adam 02.12.2015 L71 Roderic O’Conor Still Life Study with Fruit and Pottery on a Mahogany Table €48,000
3 James Adam 01.04.2015 L41 Jack Butler Yeats Hearing the Nightingale €42,000
4 James Adam 27.05.2015 L13 John Luke A Farmstead Co Armagh €40,000
5 James Adam 27.05.2015 L82 Sir John Lavery A Street in Rabat, Morocco €38,000
6 James Adam 02.12.2015 L63 Jack Butler Yeats Top of the Fall €36,000
7 James Adam 02.12.2015 L64 Jack Butler Yeats The Creole €35,000
8 James Adam 01.04.2015 L81 Louis le Brocquy Being (60) €30,000
9 James Adam 30.09.2015 L26 Jack Butler Yeats The Old Landing Place €28,000
10 James Adam 30.09.2015 L33 Daniel O’ Neill Barmaid €23,500

Total Irish Art sales at Adam’s during 2015 came to €2.7 million at hammer prices, with a sale rate of 87% overall. In the month of December alone, Adam’s ran four fine art auctions including a Fine Jewellery and Watch auction on 8 December, the Printed Charts and Maps Collection of Professor RSJ Clarke on 9 December and the personal Library of Tim Vignoles on 14 December. So the company was able to report ‘increased demand throughout the year’ in many areas but what was lacking was the supply of Irish paintings at the top end of the market. As shown in the table, the highest price for any Irish painting at Adam’s during the year was €58,000 for Jack B Yeats’ Roundstone Connemara in their May sale (Illustrated). In 2012, the same artist’s Fair Day, Mayo was knocked down at €1 million! Surely it is time for Adam’s, the leading art auctioneers in the country, to launch an annual sale devoted entirely to contemporary painting and sculpture? At the present time, the RHA exhibition and sale normally held during June and July, is the only major outlet for contemporary art and of course most of that is sourced from academicians. An autumn sale of contemporary art at Adam’s would be an appropriate innovation in 2016.

Table 2 De Veres Top Results, 2015

1 DeVeres 01.12.2015 L38 Jack Butler Yeats Man in a Train Thinking €220,000
2 DeVeres 24.03.2015 L31 Jack Butler Yeats The Bang the Door Boys €95,000
3 DeVeres 24.03.2015 L15 William John Leech Les Enfants Et Les Ombres €56,000
4 DeVeres 16.06.2015 L26 Gerard Dillon Pony in a Connemara Garden €42,000
5 DeVeres 01.12.2015 L48 Jack Butler Yeats A Hooker and a Nobbie €40,000
6 DeVeres 24.03.2015 L40 Roderic O’Conor Waves Breaking on a shore at Sunset €40,000
7 DeVeres 01.12.2015 L13 Walter Frederick Osborne A Sunny Morning in the Fields, Pont Aven €38,000
8 DeVeres 16.06.2015 L42 Peter Curling Horse Fair at Gores Bridge €31,000
9 DeVeres 01.12.2015 L12 Paul Henry Cottages Connemara €27,000
10 DeVeres 01.12.2015 L23 Louis le Brocquy Still Life, Lemons €22,000

The highest price for any picture at auction in Ireland in 2015 was €220,000 for Man in a Train Thinking by Jack Yeats at deVeres December sale (Illustrated). Perhaps it was inevitable that this picture would end up at deVeres as it was originally owned by Terence deVere White, father of the current principal here. The subject of this painting is a despondent looking character in a train carriage who is said to have suffered a gambling misfortune. Although enlivened by crimson flashes here and there, this picture lacks the usual Yeats energy. But others obviously thought differently. During 2015, the deVeres viewing space on Kildare Street was enlarged to accommodate the full complement of its sales, and this appears to have boosted the outcome of its December sale. The most unusual picture in this sale was the largish portrait of a boy, entitled Homage to Murillo, by Basil Blackshaw which came from the collection of his friend Cherith McKinstry. Quite uncharacteristic of Blackshaw’s style, as the title would suggest, it sold at its high estimate of €6,000. Two still-life paintings by Louis le Brocquy Still Life, Lemons and Lemons did well to fetch €22,000 and €16,000 respectively, while interest in his great variety of ‘Heads’ appears to be waning.

Table 3 Whyte’s Top Results, 2015

1 Whyte’s 25.05.2015 L26 Sir William Orpen Gladys Cooper €175,000
2 Whyte’s 25.05.2015 L30 Sir John Lavery A Bacchante €135,000
3 Whyte’s 30.11.2015 L70 Louis le Brocquy Being (734) €78,000
4 Whyte’s 23.02.2015 L17 Paul Henry Landscape, Connemara €68,000
5 Whyte’s 30.11.2015 L22 Paul Henry Connemara €66,000
6 Whyte’s 28.09.2015 L46 Seán Keating Illustration for the Playboy of the Western World – Frontispiece, 1923 €65,000
7 Whyte’s 25.05.2015 L18 Paul Henry Maam Valley, Connemara €52,000
8 Whyte’s 28.09.2015 L30 Joseph Patrick Haverty Group Portrait of a family with Mountains Beyond €42,000
9 Whyte’s 30.11.2015 L57 Tony O’Malley Harvest Light €34,000
10 Whyte’s 30.11.2015 L76 Donald Teskey Island Crossing VII €30,000

Whyte’s had a good year due to highlights in their spring sale, such as Orpen’s portrait of Gladys Cooper (Illustrated) and John Lavery’s A Bacchante, which accounted for a total of €310,000 in that sale, and combined with a good collection of works by Paul Henry, Louis le Brocquy, and Seán Keating in their pre-Christmas sale. Whyte’s always have a wide selection of the work of living Irish artists but in the present combined catalogues of the old and the new, only a few of ‘those still with us’ like John Shinnors, Donald Teskey, Camille Souter, Peter Curling and Basil Blackshaw are likely to carry estimates exceeding €10,000. A very good result in Whyte’s pre-Christmas sale was the €30,000 paid for Donald Teskey’s large (109x122cm) Island Crossing VII painted in 2000, which doubled its pre-sale estimate.

The surprise performer from the sale of Irish art at Bonhams in 2015 was a new work by Conor Harrington, the erstwhile street artist who hails from Cork. Previously his work had been featured in the Irish Arts Review Spring 2014, 88-91, and this large oil and spray-paint on linen work, entitled Dance with the Devil, made £77,500/€98,200 (including premium) at Bonhams 28 January sale in London. John Lavery’s work always performs well for the London houses and Bishop’s Castle Tearooms fetched £37,500 at the June sale and his House Tops, Tetuan, View from the House of the British Minister made £45,000 at the November sale.

After a lapse of some years, Sotheby’s re-introduced its annual Irish sale. The results from which while not spectacular (apart from the Lavery mentioned above) were satisfactory mainly thanks to the many Jack B Yeats in the catalogue: including four elongated pen-and-ink drawings of The Races, there were altogether ten works from Yeats in this sale, the principal being The Talkers, which sold for £209,000. His characteristic and energetic The Trotter went for £100,000 and The Learner got S£62,500. However two Yeats, with upper estimates of £180,000, failed to find buyers. Why do so many of the Yeats paintings, which are mostly owned by Irish clients, go for sale on the London market? Has it, perchance, anything to do with tax?

The big surprise in the auction was the sum of £161,000 paid for Rowan Gillespie’s soaring sculpture When Hope and History Rhyme which achieved £161,000. The market for the work of living Irish sculptors is very tight indeed and prices at this level on the open market are extremely rare. Another interesting result was the £62,500 paid for Gottfried Helnwein’s The Murmur of the Innocents 45. The surprise being that his work seldom comes on the market on this side of the Atlantic. The Austrian-born Helnwein is now an Irish citizen and has a studio in Gurteen Castle near Clonmel (see Irish Arts Review Spring 2015, 86-89), although most of his work is to be found in the US. A happy result for Elizabeth Magill was that her Heartland doubled the pre-sale estimate to sell at £40,000. The disappointment in the sale from Sotheby’s point of view was that William Orpen’s very intimate portrait of his French mistress Yvonne Aubicq (while he was in Amiens during the First World War) which carried a pre-sale estimate of £300,000/500,000 failed to find a taker. Two fairly typical West of Ireland views by Paul Henry averaged around £63,000 and two artworks by Walter Osborne were sold at between £50,000/60,000.

Happily for the Irish auction houses, they are no longer dependent on either painting or sculpture to produce their highest prices. At Sheppard’s auction of the contents of Capard House in Co Laois, €560,000 was paid for two Chinese porcelain vases. And at a Fonsie Mealy auction in Castlecomer, €320,000 was paid for a Native American war shirt with feathered headdress. Finally, at Bonhams in London, a first edition of Robert Boyle’s The Sceptical Chymist published in 1661 was sold for a record-breaking €490,000. Robert Boyle was the celebrated son of Richard Boyle, the Earl of Cork – of whom see the Irish Arts Review Spring 2003, 117-120.

Table 4 Irish Auction Houses Overall Top Results, 2015

1 DeVeres 01.12.2015 L38 Jack Butler Yeats Man in a train thinking €220,000
2 Morgan O’Driscoll 07.12.2015 L73a Jack Butler Yeats Business €210,000
3 Whyte’s 25.05.2015 L26 Sir William Orpen Gladys Cooper €175,000
4 Whyte’s 25.05.2015 L30 Sir John Lavery A Bacchante €135,000
5 Dolan’s 04.08.2015 L99 Jack Butler Yeats Hobby Horses €121,000
6 Morgan O’Driscoll 07.12.2015 L61 Paul Henry Killary Bay €97,000
7 DeVeres 23.03.2015 L31 Jack Butler Yeats The Bang the Door Boys €95,000
8 Whyte’s 30.11.2015 L70 Louis le Brocquy Being (734) €78,000
9 Morgan O’Driscoll 20.04.2015 L29 Michael Flatley The Power €77,000
10 Whyte’s 23.02.2015 L17 Paul Henry Landscape, Connemara €68,000

John Mulcahy is the Editor of the Irish Arts Review.

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