The Irish Art Market 2016: Turning a corner

John P O’Sullivan reports on the Irish Art Market 2016 where the majority of salerooms enjoyed their best year since the boom.

Although their lives overlapped for a significant amount of time, art history doesn’t record any meetings between Sir John Lavery and Norman Rockwell. The only salient fact that links them is that they both died aged 84. However, it would be nice to imagine that Lavery had heard of Rockwell’s dictum: ‘If a picture wasn’t going very well I’d put a puppy dog in it’. The highest priced work by an Irish artist in 2016 was a A Windy Day by Lavery. It features a wind-swept lady on a beach accompanied by a dog of questionable provenance. The dog certainly enhances the charm of the picture – its pose in the foreground playfully echoing the passing ship in the background. It remains in the realm of speculation whether this canine addition was responsible for pushing the price to £780,000 at Christie’s. It’s interesting to note that the same painting sold for £468,500 (at Sotheby’s) in the midst of the recession in 2009. However, it would be foolish to draw any conclusions from this one sale in an art market that has only just turned the corner towards recovery.

The second highest price in 2016 was £750,000 for Sean Scully’s Eve at Christie’s. Although technically Irish, Scully is one of the few, if not the only Irish-born artist to have an international reputation, and the world-wide sales to go with it. He operates in a different realm. The next highest price was a sharp drop to £360,000 for a rather freakish hybrid painted by Tony O’Malley and Francis Bacon. The artists’ lives intersected in St Ives, Cornwall in the late 1950s. O’Malley rented a studio once occupied by Bacon and the landlady gave him some discarded materials. These included a board with a large unfinished male nude. O’Malley blithely sawed the board in two and used it for two paintings: Currach, Clare Island and Evening Landscape, Tehidy Hospital. The two paintings were united for this auction, restoring Bacon’s nude, so the buyer got three paintings for his money. It will provide an interesting hanging challenge as the nude is portrait orientated, and the landscapes obviously not.

The top prices for works by Irish artists in 2016 were all realised by Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Bonhams. William Scott did remarkably well in the UK auction houses with no less than seven of his works appearing in their respective top tens – three at Sotheby’s (£310,000, £220,000 and £110,000), three at Bonhams (£160,000, £43,000, and £17,000) the highest sum at Bonhams for Grey, White and Black, a fine example of Scott’s non-figurative distilled compositions from the early 1960s and one at Christie’s (£300,000). In addition to the usual suspects (Lavery, Jack B Yeats and Paul Henry), Barry Flanagan had a strong showing with Acrobats fetching £320,000, Unicorn £260,000, and Monument £150,000, all at Christie’s.

Some may quibble with the Welsh-born Flanagan’s inclusion on these lists. However, his father was Irish, he lived in Dublin for a period and enjoyed a strong connection with the local art scene, especially the Graphic Studio Dublin. He also had a notable retrospective at IMMA in 2006. He considered himself an ‘English-speaking itinerant European sculptor’ so perhaps we can claim him on that basis. It was a surprise to see three pieces in Christie’s top ten. This was as a result of the dispersal of Leslie Waddington’s collection. Waddington was a highly-respected art dealer, not least for his scrupulous attention to provenance and for his high ethical standards. He was an early admirer of Flanagan and did much to build his reputation. Waddington had strong views on what motivated collectors. In an interview in 1992, he warned that buying art for investment was a dangerous business and described the notion that people buy art primarily for investment reasons as ‘Marxist nonsense’. They buy, he maintained, either because they are interested in art or because they like to own what people richer and more famous than themselves like to own.

Jack B Yeats and Paul Henry continue to dominate the results at the Irish-based auction houses although William Orpen had a strong showing also. After the €165,00 paid for the Sean Scully at De Veres the next best prices were Jack B Yeats’ Caballero (again at De Veres) and Paul Henry’s Evening in Achill (at Morgan O’Driscoll), which achieved the same €135,000. Both paintings had curious aspects. The title of Yeats’ painting might lead you to expect a mounted Spanish gentleman, but this caballero is on foot accompanied by a small boy. The Henry piece was dominated by a curious looming cloud formation that invited anthropomorphic speculation. The other six figure yields were for another Paul Henry, A Connemara Village (€119,000), at Adam’s and two works by William Orpen at the same venue. The Orpen Self-Portrait (€110,000) features the artist in profile with a flowing scarf and a black beret. While an heroic pose is definitely being struck it does not spare us the detail of his famously jutting lip.

Apart from Scully, the other living Irish artists to achieve substantial five-figure sums were Hughie O’Donoghue and Michael Flatley. The latter’s name may surprise a few as he appears to have emerged on the Irish art scene without trace. While he fell short of the €77,000 he commanded at Morgan O’Driscoll in 2015 he sold two works for the same auction house for €42,000 and €27,000. Morgan O’Driscoll told me recently that he has a small but extremely enthusiastic following.

Leo Whelan doesn’t come up for auction that often these days. His Waiting achieved €60,000 at De Veres. This alas compares rather poorly with the €265,000 it garnered in 2007 – at the very height of Celtic Tiger inflation. The previous purchaser was a property developer from Killiney whose financial travails attracted much media attention last year.

While their prices are still far below the halcyon days of 2007, some living artists’ prices have been showing modest growth. John Shinnors made €26,000 (Badgers, Her Place) and €20,000 at De Veres (Gull Goes West) and Donald Teskey made €13,000 (School House Lane II) and €14,000 (Longshore I) at the same venue – a bit shy of the €30,00 he made in 2015. Robert Ballagh remains popular and had sales of €25,000 (Man and a Tom Wesselman) and €14,000 (Girl and an Andy Warhol). Martin Gale also showed up well.

It was a year not notable for good quality paintings by Jack B Yeats – only two of his works realised six figures. However, one of these, Sleep Sound, has a very interesting provenance. It came from the collection of David Bowie. The painting has an elegiac quality and was painted by Yeats when his own mortality was a looming issue. The title was taken from the poem ‘Lullaby’ by his brother WB Yeats. This fascinating piece was sold at Sotheby’s for £190,000.

The best-selling piece at Whyte’s was Paul Henry’s Connemara Landscape that yielded €100,00. Another notable sale was a unique cherrywood sculpture, Matriarch, by the Northern Ireland artist FE McWilliam, that fetched €90,000. This work came from the George and Maura McClelland collection that yielded a substantial return for Whyte’s in 2016.

‘2016 was our best year since 2008, with a turnover of €6 million, hopefully marking the end of the recession in the art market. The highlight was the sale of the George and Maura McClelland collection which included works by Gerard Dillon, Colin Middleton and Tony O’Malley.’ Ian Whyte, Whyte’s.

De Veres broke the Paul Henry hegemony at Irish-based auction houses with the €165,000 it got for a Sean Scully (1.6.92) and also did well with Jack B Yeats (Caballero) and Roderic O’Conor (Nature Morte, Flower on a Table).

‘We had our best year since 2007 but the market is still on its knees. We are concentrating now on quality rather quantity – I’d prefer 60 good paintings than 160 of mixed quality.’ John De Vere, De Veres.

Adam’s continued to do well with Paul Henry, Jack B Yeats, and William Orpen prominent. There was also a notable Seán Keating, Bush Telegraph, that went for €57,000.

‘Overall the Irish art market is steady with demand for blue chip artists being maintained. It could also be described as a little unpredictable at times too. Sir William Orpen appears twice in in our top three prices for the year – something we haven’t seen before.’ James O’Halloran, Adam’s.

Morgan O’Driscoll’s presence continues to grow and apart from cornering the market in works by Michael Flatley he did very well with his Paul Henrys – selling three substantial pieces for €135,000 (Evening in Achill), €74,000 (A Kerry Lake) and €58,000 (In the Western Mountains).

‘2016 was the most successful year for Morgan O’Driscoll since the company was founded.’ Morgan O’Driscoll.

In Belfast, Ross’s continued to fly the flag for Northern Ireland artists. William Conor’s Donkey Cart was its best seller at £20,000. Colin Davidson was the only living artist to make its top ten with Windows, Great Victoria, Belfast which sold for £11,000.

The overall impression based on the results for 2016 is that the market is definitely improving but is still nowhere near the halcyon days of 2007. It remains very conservative and very discerning. Good quality work by both living and dead artists will be recognised and rewarded. In such a market art is a precarious investment but buying for pleasure will remain rewarding.

John P O’Sullivan writes on art and literature for the Sunday Times and blogs on sport and the arts as ‘Ardmayle’.

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

Table 1 Irish Auction Houses Overall Top Results, 2016

AUCTION HOUSE SALE DATE LOT NO. ARTIST TITLE PRICE
1 De Veres 22.11.2016 L34 Sean Scully 1.6.92 €165,000
2 De Veres 22.11.2016 L91 Jack Butler Yeats Caballero €135,000
3 Morgan O’Driscoll 05.12.2016 L64 Paul Henry Evening in Achill €135,000
4 Adam’s 23.03.2016 L62 Paul Henry A Connemara Village €119,000
5 Adam’s 07.12.2016 L32 Sir William Orpen Self Portrait €110,000
6 Whyte’s 30.05.2016 L19 Paul Henry Connemara Landscape €100,000
7 Adam’s 07.12.3016 L33 Sir William Orpen Portrait of Mrs Oscar Lewisohn, Formerly Miss Enda May €96,000
8 Adam’s 23.03.2016 L48 Jack Butler Yeats Man Reading €92,000
9 Whyte’s 26.09.2016 L50 Frederick Edward McWilliam Matriarch €90,000
10 Whyte’s 28.11.2016 L32a Paul Henry Ireland Landscape €87,000

Table 2 Adam’s Top Results, 2016

AUCTION HOUSE SALE DATE LOT NO. ARTIST TITLE PRICE
1 James Adam 23.03.2016 L62 Paul Henry A Connemara Village €119,000
2 James Adam 07.12.2016 L32 Sir William Orpen Self Portrait €110,000
3 James Adam 07.12.3016 L33 Sir William Orpen Portrait of Mrs Oscar Lewisohn, Formerly Miss Enda May €96,000
4 James Adam 23.03.2016 L48 Jack Butler Yeats Man Reading €92,000
5 James Adam 01.06.2016 L33 Jack Butler Yeats By Drumcliffe Strand Long Ago €80,000
6 James Adam 01.06.2016 L43 Sean Keating Bush Telegraph €57,000
7 James Adam 01.06.2016 L34 Jack Butler Yeats The Birds are on the Move €55,000
8 James Adam 28.09.2016 L34 Paul Henry In the Western Mountains €52,000
9 James Adam 07.12.2016 L77 Roderic O Conor Etude De Nu €40,000
10 James Adam 23.03.2016 L51 Jack Butler Yeats The Well €40,000

Table 3 De Veres Top Results, 2016

AUCTION HOUSE SALE DATE LOT NO. ARTIST TITLE PRICE
1 De Veres 22.11.2016 L34 Sean Scully 1.6.92 €165,000
2 De Veres 22.11.2016 L91 Jack Butler Yeats Caballero €135,000
3 De Veres 07.03.3016 L33 Roderic O’ Conor Nature Morte, Flowers on a Table €80,000
4 De Veres 07.03.3016 L45 William John Leech The Housekeeper €70,000
5 De Veres 25.05.2016 L26 Jack Butler Yeats A Riverside Inn €66,000
6 De Veres 25.05.2016 L28 Jack Butler Yeats The Ferry Boat €61,000
7 De Veres 22.11.2016 L31 Leo Whelan Waiting €60,000
8 De Veres 25.05.2016 L33 Roderic O’ Conor Still Life with Apples on a White Cloth €55,000
9 De Veres 07.03.3016 L46 Paul Henry Winter Trees €44,000
10 De Veres 25.05.2016 L27 Mary Swanzy A View of Semur-En-Auxios €41,000

Table 4 Morgan O’Driscoll Results, 2016

AUCTION HOUSE SALE DATE LOT NO. ARTIST TITLE PRICE
1 Morgan O’Driscoll 05.12.2016 L64 Paul Henry Evening in Achill €135,000
2 Morgan O’Driscoll 25.04.2016 L84 Paul Henry A Kerry Lake €74,000
3 Morgan O’Driscoll 05.12.2016 L45 Paul Henry In the Western Mountains €58,000
4 Morgan O’Driscoll 25.04.2016 L90 Michael Flatley Colorado Springs €42,000
5 Morgan O’Driscoll 05.12.2016 L59 Sir John Lavery The Palladian Bridge, Wilton €42,000
6 Morgan O’Driscoll 05.12.2016 L51 Walter Frederick Osborne The Hurdy-Gurdy Player €36,000
7 Morgan O’Driscoll 05.12.2016 L33 Hughie O’ Donoghue Red Earth VI €29,000
8 Morgan O’Driscoll 25.04.2016 L80 Sean Scully  3.17.02 €29,000
9 Morgan O’Driscoll 05.12.2016 L79 Michael Flatley The Sage €27,000
10 Morgan O’Driscoll 05.12.2016 L53 Louis le Brocquy Study Towards an Image of William Shakespeare Opus W645 €26,000

Table 5 Whyte’s Top Results, 2016

AUCTION HOUSE SALE DATE LOT NO. ARTIST TITLE PRICE
1 Whyte’s 30.05.2016 L19 Paul Henry Connemara Landscape €100,000
2 Whyte’s 26.09.2016 L50 Frederick Edward McWilliam Matriarch €90,000
3 Whyte’s 28.11.2016 L32a Paul Henry West of Ireland Landscape €87,000
4 Whyte’s 26.09.2016 L95 Jack Butler Yeats Singing under The Canopy of Heaven €85,000
5 Whyte’s 30.05.2016 L22 Paul Henry West of Ireand Road Through The Bog €82,000
6 Whyte’s 29.02.2016 L20 Paul Henry A Kerry Bog €66,000
7 Whyte’s 29.02.2016 L18 Paul Henry Cabins by a Lough: West of Ireland €54,000
8 Whyte’s 30.05.2016 L30 Seán Keating Salud, 1924 €52,000
9 Whyte’s 26.09.2016 L98 Daniel O’Neill Figure in a Landscape €45,000
10 Whyte’s 30.05.2016 L98 Gerard Dillon West of Ireland Couple and Horses €36,000

Table 6 UK Auction Houses Overall Top Results, 2016

AUCTION HOUSE SALE DATE LOT NO. ARTIST TITLE PRICE
1 Christie’s 23.11.2016 L36 Sir John Lavery A Windy Day £780,000
2 Christie’s 29.06.2016 L25 Sean Scully Eve £750,000
3 Christie’s 17.03.2016 L66 Francis Bacon Currach, Clare Island (recto); Evening Landscape Tehidy Hospital (recto); Figure (verso) £360,000
4 Christie’s 20.06.2016 L11 Sean Scully Montserrat £350,000
5 Christie’s 04.10.2016 L04 Barry Flanagan Acrobats £320,000
6 Sothebys 10.11.2016 L13 William Scott Girl Seated at a Table £310,000
7 Christie’s 20.06.2016 L04 William Scott Seated Figure No. 1 £300,000
8 Christie’s 11.11.2016 L22 Sean Scully Small Horizontal Robe £280,000
9 Christie’s 04.10.2016 L32 Barry Flanagan Unicorn £260,000
10 Sothebys 10.11.2016 L27 William Scott Winter Still Life No. 2 £220,000

Table 7 Bonhams Top Results, 2016

AUCTION HOUSE SALE DATE LOT NO. ARTIST TITLE PRICE
1 Bonhams 23.11.2016 L William Scott Grey White and Black £197,000
2 Bonhams 15.06.2016 L89 Jack Butler Yeats Single File £65,000
3 Bonhams 15.06.2016 L87 Paul Henry The Cottage by the Lake £64,000
4 Bonhams 24.11.2016 L49 Paul Henry Killary Bay £55,000
5 Bonhams 25.11.2016 L46 Jack Butler Yeats A Soldier of Fortune £45,000
6 Bonhams 15.06.2016 L77 William Scott Portrait of a Young Man £43,000
7 Bonhams 26.11.2016 L45 Jack Butler Yeats Fresh and Salt £25,000
8 Bonhams 15.06.2016 L115 Frederick Edward McWilliam Seated Woman II £22,000
9 Bonhams 15.06.2016 L88 Paul Henry Lough Corrib from Glendda £22,000
10 Bonhams 15.06.2016 L51 William Scott Study for a Painting £17,000

Table 8 Christie’s Top Results, 2016

AUCTION HOUSE SALE DATE LOT NO. ARTIST TITLE PRICE
1 Christie’s 23.11.2016 L36 Sir John Lavery A Windy Day £780,000
2 Christie’s 29.06.2016 L25 Sean Scully Eve £750,000
3 Christie’s 17.03.2016 L66 Francis Bacon & Tony O’ Malley Currach, Clare Island (recto); Evening Landscape Tehidy Hospital (recto); Figure (verso) £360,000
4 Christie’s 20.06.2016 L11 Sean Scully Montserrat £350,000
5 Christie’s 04.10.2016 L04 Barry Flanagan Acrobats £320,000
6 Christie’s 20.06.2016 L04 William Scott Seated Figure No. 1 £300,000
7 Christie’s 11.11.2016 L22 Sean Scully Small Horizontal Robe £280,000
8 Christie’s 04.10.2016 L32 Barry Flanagan Unicorn £260,000
9 Christie’s 21.06.2016 L182 Sir John Lavery A Summer Evening – The Thames £210,000
10 Christie’s 04.10.2016 L29 Barry Flanagan Monument £150,000

Table 9 Ross’ Top Results, 2016

AUCTION HOUSE SALE DATE LOT NO. ARTIST TITLE PRICE
1 Ross’ 07.12.2016 L03 William Conor The Donkey Cart £20,000
2 Ross’ 09.03.2016 L20 James Humbert Craig Mending the Nets Near Cushendun, Co. Antrim Coast £19,000
3 Ross’ 09.03.2016 L95 Frank McKelvey Burtonport, Donegal £15,000
4 Ross’ 20.04.2016 L17 Colin Davidson Window, Great Victoria Street, Belfast £11,000
5 Ross’ 07.12.2016 L28 William Conor Children on the Carousel £10,000
6 Ross’ 15.06.2016 L23 Basil Blackshaw Blue (Dog Study) £10,000
7 Ross’ 07.12.2016 L12 Daniel O’ Neill Lisa £8,200
8 Ross’ 15.06.2016 L10 James Humbert Craig The Prime of Summertime £6,400
9 Ross’ 24.02.2016 L03 James Humbert Craig Cushendale Fair £6,200
10 Ross’ 07.12.2016 L02 Frank McKelvey Picnic at Sandhill £6,000

Table 10 Sothebys Top Results, 2016

AUCTION HOUSE SALE DATE LOT NO. ARTIST TITLE PRICE
1 Sothebys 10.11.2016 L13 William Scott Girl Seated at a Table £310,000
2 Sothebys 10.11.2016 L27 William Scott Winter Still Life No. 2 £220,000
3 Sothebys 10.11.2016 L16 Jack Butler Yeats Sleep Sound £190,000
4 Sothebys 13.09.2016 L47 Gerard Dillon Mending the Nets, Aran £155,000
5 Sothebys 13.09.2016 L12 Paul Henry The Road by the Lake £150,000
6 Sothebys 11.11.16 L155 William Scott Black Brown and White £110,000
7 Sothebys 13.09.2016 L21 Roderic O’Conor Blue Sea and Red Rocks, Brittany £110,000
8 Sothebys 13.09.2016 L70 Gottfried Helnwein The Disasters of War 47 £92,000
9 Sothebys 13.09.2016 L20 Seán Keating Self Portrait in a Bear Skin £90,000
10 Sothebys 13.09.2016 L10 Sir John Lavery The Cello Player £90,000
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