“Nearly all the people buying paintings by Jack Butler Yeats have some emotional attachment to his work. That’s probably why people are slow to part with them too.”
According to Ian Whyte of Dublin auction house Whyte’s (20% buyer’s premium), the famous Irish artist is indicative of a wider challenge currently facing the country’s art market: a scarcity of top Irish works to meet demand.
At the saleroom’s Irish and International art sale on October 1, a blue-chip 18in x 2ft (46 x 61cm) oil by Yeats (1871-1957) showing a bearded plane pilot looking out over a blustery Atlantic was a case in point.
When bidding reached its top estimate of €300,000, there were at least four bidders still in the running. It was eventually knocked down at €370,000 (£267,860) – the highest price of the sale. “So, we’re out looking for three more by Yeats,” said Whyte.
James O’Hollaran, Whyte’s opposite number at fellow Dublin auction house Adam’s (20% buyer’s premium), concurs: “The market is continuing to gather strength, but the lack of high-quality supply is hindering its progress.”
A decade on from the 2008 banking crisis and subsequent economic crash, the market in Irish art has bounced back considerably, but it seems prices have not yet risen high enough to tempt many vendors to sell.
The latest results from Whyte’s and Adam’s made for good reading: €2.7m (£2.4m) worth of pictures and sculpture were sold, with healthy selling rates of 80% and 84% respectively.
It stands to reason that if the market continues to strengthen, with vendors experiencing good returns, it may not be long before greater numbers of high-calibre works are released for sale.
Certainly, collectors will keep a close eye on Sotheby’s in November when more than 100 Irish works valued at a total of £3m-4.5m will go under the hammer from the collection of American couple Brian and Eileen Burns.
JB Yeats’ hotly pursued painting topped the €1.6m (£1.4m) sale, while a trademark west of Ireland landscape by Paul Henry (1876- 1958) was knocked down on top estimate at €80,000 (£71,430). The Henry had failed to find a buyer at a collaborative Irish sale between Bonhams and Adam’s in 2007.
Joining the duo at the top of the price sheet was St Ives artist Patrick Heron (1920-99). His intensely colourful post-war abstract Bedroom, Mousehole, completed in 1946 when the artist was in his mid-20s, sold well in excess of its €60,000-80,000 guide for €125,000 (£111,620).
According to the catalogue note, the 2ft 6in x 2ft 1in (76 x 63cm) oil on canvas demonstrates the artist’s “decisive departure from illustrative, representational imagery… to communicating through the direct experience of form and colour”.
Heron’s connection to Irish artists such as Tony O’Malley has ensured his popularity on the secondary market in Ireland, although on this occasion the buyer was an English collector.
Sean Keating’s (1889-1977) mystical Thinking Out Gobnet provided a good return for the vendor who had acquired it for €18,000 at Adam’s 13 years ago. The 1917 allegorical study of Keating’s friend and fellow artist Harry Clarke, pictured on the catalogue cover and previewed in ATG No 2360, sold towards its lower guide to an English collector for €56,000 (£50,000).
Encouraging signs of a strengthening middle market were found elsewhere in the sale.
Walter Osborne’s (1859-1903) small 7¼ x 10¾in (18 x 27cm) ‘en plein air’ painting Rush and Lusk sold over estimate for €40,000 (£35,710), nearly double the money it made in the same rooms five years ago. Depicting a village street in County Dublin, it was dated to c.1898 when Osborne was at the peak of his artistic powers.
The auction also took €30,000 (£26,790) for one of John Lavery’s (1856-1941) ‘nocturnes’ painted in 1912 during a sojourn to Tangier, Morocco’s ‘White City’, which the artist frequently visited in the winter months.
It had failed to sell at Bonhams London in 2016, guided at £18,000- 25,000, and fell just short of the €40,000 (then around £27,400) it achieved at Whyte’s in 2005 at the height of the Celtic Tiger boom.
The September 26 auction opened with 23 paintings from the Friel Collection, assembled over many years by the late playwright Brian Friel and his wife Anne. A ‘white-glove’ section, the group raised just over €165,000 (£147,320) with all proceeds going to the Irish homeless charity Peter McVerry Trust.
The group’s star turn was Evening Flight by Norah McGuinness (1901-88), a 20 x 30in (51 x 76cm) oil of a tranquil beach scene where seabirds feed at dusk against the silhouette of the Dublin skyline.
During the 1960s and ‘70s, McGuinness did several paintings of the coastline of Dublin and its vibrant seabird life, continuing to refine her deployment of Cubism, which she had learned in the studio of André Lhote in Paris in the 1920s.
It was knocked down towards its upper guide at €22,000 (£19,640).
Birds were also a central theme in another star lot, a Gerard Dillon (1916-71) that had come from a different source. Pigeon on the Bay, a 15¾ x 20in (40 x 51cm) oil on board, was painted during Dillon’s time in the west of Ireland and was exhibited at Victor Waddington Galleries in Dublin in 1953.
Although depicting an unknown location, it resembled paintings from Dillon’s time on Connemara and the nearby tiny island of Inishlacken where he produced some of his most sought-after canvases on today’s market.
Indeed, the artist was the toast of an Irish art sale at Sotheby’s in London last month when a private Irish collector paid a record £160,000 for Lobster Pots, an oil from 1951 of Roundstone harbour in Connemara.
The value of Louis le Brocquy’s work continues to recover after the pummelling it took following Ireland’s financial crash a decade ago.
The sale was led by one of le Brocquy’s (1916-2012) popular skull-like portrait heads of the Irish novelist and poet James Joyce.
The evocative 2ft 3in (70cm) square canvas James Joyce (Opus 424) got away towards its lower guide at €68,000 (£60,710).
Though others have made more, including £340,000 paid for the head of literary figure Samuel Beckett at Sotheby’s in 2007, the price is among the highest for a Joyce portrait at auction.
In May, Whyte’s sold a le Brocquy watercolour once owned by U2 singer Bono for €19,000, while another from David Bowie’s landmark sale at Sotheby’s in 2016 soared to a premium-inclusive £68,750.
£1 = €1.12