THE London Irish sales are the annual litmus test of the very top end of the Irish picture market. Upcoming at the time of writing, this year’s sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s (May 15 and 16) seem to lack the numbers of big hitting pictures seen over the past ten years, reflecting the reluctance of vendors to come into today’s nervous market in which estimates are based upon realities rather than the wishful thinking that used to be good enough.
But while we wait to see how the London sales pan out, it is encouraging to note how well the middle market was holding up on home turf as was seen on April 29 at the Dublin rooms of Whyte’s (15 per cent buyer’s premium).
The trade have more or less been knocked out of these mid-range sales – as in so many Irish auctions – by wealthy private collectors who, although now a bit more discriminating than in previous years, are still buying.
It’s true that 19th century works need, as the auctioneers said, to be “really outstanding” to trigger any real interest but the trend among collectors for the latter half of the 20th century seems to be still strong.
Wholly in tune with collectors’ tastes was Gold Painting ’65 by Patrick Scott (b.1921). These gold paintings represent Scott’s move to totally abstract minimalism and, as such, any collector of Contemporary Irish painting would want at least one in his or her collection.
The nature of the pictures, constructed from gold leaf and tempera on unprimed canvas, means they are extremely hard to conserve, but this 6ft 10 by 2ft 8in (1.78m x 81cm) example, which was signed, inscribed and dated 1969 to the reverse, was in pretty good condition bar some wrinkles to the gold leaf.
Having once belonged to Mme Zalstem-Zalesskym, patron of the arts and daughter of the pharmaceuticals founder Robert Wood Johnson, the picture had an excellent provenance.
Back in March Whytes took €21,000 (£15,000) for Cross (Polyptych), another gold painting, and this time around a Dublin collector stretched to €22,000 (£15,715) – a price which Ian Whyte feels is still cheap and reflects how Scott’s work is still hugely underrated.
And talking of underrated artists, a tip for future fame may be found in the success of Ex Machina, a signed and dated July 1967 acrylic and mixed media on unprimed canvas by Patrick Dolan (1926-1980).
Dolan joined the artistic community of St Ives in the late 1960s where he remained until his death and was a contemporary of Scott and friend of Tony O’Malley and Francis Bacon. Because Dolan’s works rarely come up at auction, it was hard for Mr Whyte to put a value on the 3ft 3in by 2ft 8in (91 x 81cm) canvas but he settled on €2000-3000. Lots of interest saw it taken to €4400 (£3150).
Louis le Brocquy (b.1916) is widely recognised as Ireland’s greatest living painter and also one of its most versatile, having expressed himself through his early tinker pictures, his series of heads of literary luminaries and a series of Aubusson tapestries which the artist turned to in 1948. His 3ft 7in by 5ft 9in (1.12 x 1.75m) tapestry Eden was commissioned in 1951 as one of three works on the theme of the Garden of Eden. Each work was made in an edition of nine in addition to the artist’s creation and this particular example was le Brocquy’s own work. Nevertheless, and despite good private Irish provenance and condition, the tapestry saw little competition and sold below the bottom estimate at €45,000 (£32,150). The explanation may be that collectors preferred to wait until May 16 for Sotheby’s larger and more significant example Allegory.
The influence of Jack Butler Yeats (1871-1957) in Colin Middleton’s (1910-1983) signed and inscribed oil on canvas Music was unmistakeable – and indeed the vendor’s father had apparently had a choice between this work and a Yeats when he bought the picture from Victor Waddingtons in Dublin in 1955.
“Middleton is seriously hot property at the moment,” said Ian Whyte. “Who knows, in 20 years time perhaps his work will be making more money than Yeats.”
One of a series of paintings of Middleton’s second wife Kate playing the piano, Music was in good condition and against hopes of €30,000-40,000 it took €38,000 (£27,150) from a collector in the Isle of Man.
Table with teapot, another Middleton, was large at 2ft by 4ft (61cm x 1.22m) but rather dark. Ian Whyte felt it was the kind of piece to appeal to a corporate buyer and it took a top-estimate €12,000 (£8570).
Exchange rate: £1 = €1.40