‘Reverie’ by Jack Butler Yeats
‘Reverie’, a painting from 1931 by Jack Butler Yeats. It sold for a record €1.4m (£1.2m) at the sale of the Ernie O'Malley collection held by Whyte's in association with Christie's.

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Exceeding expectations of €3m, the 100-lot auction at the Royal Dublin Society on November 25 was a white-glove affair with every lot finding a buyer and most works contested above estimate.

The total was only behind the premium-inclusive €5.6m generated by the larger mixed-owner Irish art auction held by Bonhams & Adams in December 2006.

The O'Malley auction posted records for a number of artists including leading Irish painter Jack Butler Yeats (1871-1957).

Reverie from 1931, a 2ft x 3ft (61 x 91cm) signed oil on canvas showing a figure in a railway carriage, led the sale when it was knocked down at €1.4m (£1.2m) to collector in the US. The price was also a record for any picture sold at auction in Ireland.

The vibrant colouring, figurative subject, good date and attractive provenance all gave it substantial appeal. Yeats travelled by rail across Ireland extensively throughout his career and his friend O’Malley, who acquired this painting directly from the artist in 1945, wrote of how “the shifting scene” in the work is “temperamental and induces mood” with the landscape visible through the window symbolic of the figure’s thoughts and imagination.

The price pipped the previous high for Yeats which was set at Sotheby’s in London back in May 1999 when The Wild Ones from 1947 was knocked down at £1.12m (€1.31m).

The previous auction record for a painting sold in Ireland was Yeats’ A Fair Day, Mayo that fetched at €1m (£917,430) at Adam's in September 2011.

‘Evening in Spring’ by Jack Butler Yeats

‘Evening in Spring’, a painting from 1937 by Jack Butler Yeats – €1.3m (£1.12m) at Whyte’s sale in association with Christie’s.

Also bringing a strong competition and selling to the same buyer at the O'Malley sale was Evening in Spring from 1937 which depicts a group of figures sat around a dining table, believed to be a Yeats family dinner in Sligo. Another work that O’Malley bought it from the artist in 1945, it overshot an estimate of €500,000-700,000 and was knocked down at €1.3m (£1.12m).

Revolutionary collection

The works came to auction directly from O’Malley's family. He was a leading Irish revolutionary and an officer Irish Republican Army during the Irish War of Independence who went on become a writer, publishing two books detailing his experiences.

After his marriage (and subsequent divorce) to American heiress and sculptor Helen Hooker (the sister-in-law of JD Rockefeller), he devoted himself to the arts and championed many Irish painters including Yeats who became a close friend after the two men met in 1937 at the home of the historian Constantine Curran.

In 1945 O’Malley organised a Yeats exhibition, loaning his own artworks and writing the exhibition catalogue.

Major contribution

Among the other works by Yeats at the sale, The Enfolding Night from 1947 made €520,000 (£446,350), selling to a Northern Ireland dealer acting for a client, Death for The Only One from 1937 made €470,000 (£403,435) and was sold to a collector in England, while The Fighting Dawn from 1945 took €320,000 (£274,680), also going to a collector in England.

‘The Enfolding Night’ by Jack Butler Yeats

‘The Enfolding Night’ from 1947 by Jack Butler Yeats – €520,000 (£446,350) at Whyte’s sale in association with Christie’s.

Overall the 45 Yeats lots at the sale, which included a group of drawings and watercolours, raised a hammer total of £4.11m, contributing the bulk of the sale’s total.

Yeats aside, a further auction record came for Mainie Jellet (1897-1944) when The Land Éire from 1940 more than doubled the previous high for the artist when it was knocked down at €110,000 (£94,420) to a collector in the US. The estimate was €26,000-40,000.

The buyer’s premium was 25/20/13.5%

£1 = €1.165