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The market for Irish art has matured: collectors are buying more selectively and hunting for bargains

Yeats and Orpen run out of steam

The auctions of Irish art on 13 and 14 May have become important events in the calendar for Sotheby’s and Christie’s. The market is below the peak years of 1999-2001, when a swathe of rich Irish businessmen, such as Michael Smurfit, John Magnier, Tony O’Reilly, Tony Ryan and more, competed to lift prices to unprecedented levels. At the height of the boom in 2001, a portrait by Sir William Orpen reached £1.9 million.

Today, while the market remains fairly buoyant, it has matured. The major players have already acquired some of the finest works available and their walls are filling up. Some are no longer so active, while John Magnier, who was one of the biggest hitters, has moved beyond Irish art (he bought a Modigliani for $26.8 million in New York last year, and Reynold’s Omai for £10.3 million in London in 2001. This has been denied an export licence by the government as the Tate tries to raise funds for its purchase).  

This year’s auctions were built around two collections. Christie’s offered 104 lots assembled by William and Joan Roth, an American couple who honeymooned in Ireland in 1946, met the artist Jack Yeats, and started to buy his work. Sotheby’s, meanwhile, was disposing of the corporate collection of Smurfit, the packaging company, which was acquired by Madison Dearborn Partners of Chicago in 2002. As so often happens, the new owners quickly disposed of the art. In May last year, a first group of 10 works raised £1.8 million; on 13 May the remaining 27 paintings brought £1.26 million, although 10 lots failed to sell.

Both auctions shared one dominating characteristic, which surprised and unsettled the salerooms: a lack of interest in the paintings of Yeats and Sir William Orpen, who, along with Sir John Lavery, had powered the remarkable price inflation in Irish art in the 1990s. Christie’s sold only two of its seven works by Orpen and just two of the seven by Yeats.

However it was a Yeats, an example from the Roth Collection, which attracted the highest price of the day. “Here she comes”, an early work of 1913 depicting a trotting race, was acquired by the Roths for £200 in 1945; it sold within estimate on 14 May for £565,250.

But if 20th-century art failed to shine at Christie’s, there was considerable interest in earlier examples of Irish art. A double portrait of Mary, Countess of Erne with her daughter, painted in 1790 by Hugh Douglas Hamilton sold for £542,850 (near the bottom of its strong estimate of £500/800,000), while a pair of landscapes by Thomas Roberts in the 1770s doubled their forecast at £363,350.

There was also interest in 19th-century artists. “A new arrival” by William Osborne, a sentimental genre scene of a girl nursing a kitten, dating from 1885, sold for £341,250.

Auctioneer Bernard Williams said two elements accounted for the slightly disappointing result. Two major buyers were absent from the sale, and while bidding was lively up to the reserve, it tended to evaporate afterwards, indicating that buyers were bargain hunting. However Christie’s retained its dominance in 18th- and early 19th-century Irish art and Mr Williams expected many key lots to sell after the auction–another indication of bargain hunting.

Serious Irish collectors, who have become more canny over the years, believe that in the current market they can drive a bargain. Most of the main players were represented at Sotheby’s sale but were bidding much more cautiously; perhaps their collections now contain few significant gaps. As at Christie’s, demand for Yeats and Orpen seems to have run out of steam. An Orpen self-portrait, in which he depicts himself as a “Man of the West”, a work of around 1910, which was influential in making the Arran Islands a haven for artists, was expected to make over £300,000, but did not attract a single bid. “Men of snow”, a Christmas scene of 1946 by Yeats, also failed to get anywhere near its £180,000 low estimate. Both paintings were from the Smurfit collection.

While works by Yeats and Orpen performed poorly, the third most expensive Irish artist, Sir John Lavery, continues to be in demand. “Finale”, a portrait of a young lady at the piano of around 1887, and influenced by the artist’s meeting with Whistler, sold for £599,200, at the top of its estimate. It went to a new buyer of Irish art and proved a good investment for Smurfit, who paid £400,000 for it in 2002. However in 1946, when Irish art was totally out of fashion, it had cost just £75.

Another decorative painting by Lavery, “Lady in red”, a portrait of Constance Bridges, also owned by Smurfit, was perhaps the star of the auction, doubling its top estimate to sell for £364,000.

Paul Henry was equally popular at Sotheby’s and “Achill landscape”, 1912, made £151,200 while the “Edge of the lake” realised £162,400. Sotheby’s specialist Jo Doidge-Harrison expressed herself “delighted” with the auction.

The presence of some much needed new buyers from outside Ireland should help to bolster the market and, as at Christie’s, there was particular interest in earlier Irish art and in contemporary works. “Donneybrook fair”, 1842, by Samuel Watson went for £117,600 while contemporary artists new to the saleroom, such as Elizabeth Cope and Graham Nuttall, both sold above their admittedly modest targets. Irish art may be below its peak but it still provides good business for the salerooms.

Irish sale, Sotheby’s London,

13 May 2004

Sold by lot 72.65%

Sold by value 71.52%

Sale total £4,517,880

The Irish sale, Christie’s London,

14 May 2004

Sold by lot 71%

Sold by value 69%

Sale total £4,676,352

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Yeats and Orpen run out of steam'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 148 June 2004