Sunday 18 February 2018

'The house, the wife and the kids will go first' - 1916 and the commerce of nostalgia

Ian Whtye's auctioneering business is one of the surest bellwethers of the wider economy. He spoke to Donal Lynch about boom, bust and bad taste

Ian Whyte
Ian Whyte
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

You can feel the tell-tale tremor of recovery from Ian Whyte's office. The pneumatic drone of the building works on nearby Dawson Street permeates through the walls of his building on Marlborough Street and while the noise is an obvious irritant, it also serves as a daily reminder that the corner has been turned.

For Whyte, it is a hopeful sign that people may soon be able to afford to have walls on which to hang the pictures he auctions. Perhaps even more than the architects or engineers who stalk the site opposite him, his business is a bellwether of wider recovery. And the anniversary of the Rising gives a perfectly timed fillip to the commerce of nostalgia.

In boom years, there was a market of €40m-€50m for antiques and paintings in Ireland; it's now about half that and a good amount of that business goes to the UK.

"We can turnover €4m to €5m this year but at the peak we were doing €12m," Whyte tells me. "Sotheby's - to take just one comparison - could turn over about €5m or €6m in Irish stuff."

Over the last few months, the witty and eloquent Whyte has auctioned medals and rare copies of the Proclamation and the prices being paid demonstrate how well things have rebounded. During boom times, with prices swollen beyond all reason by cash-rich investors, the really serious collectors tended to sit out auctions. But now they are back and the money changing hands, while still jaw-dropping, has the merit of reason for Whyte.

"If you're spending hundreds of thousands on something, you want to have at the back of your mind that once I buy this it's not going to turn to dust, that it will be worth something if you needed money", he tells me. "But for most collectors, it's the very last thing they'll sell. The house, wife and kids will go first. For them, it's almost like a drug. And I suppose at least they're not smoking it or injecting it or pissing it down a drain."

A copy of the Proclamation sold recently, through Whyte, for €185,000 - the seller had made about €100,000 on it during a 15-year period.

"The person who eventually bought it was an Irish-American banker living in New York. Irish-Americans tend to appreciate the value of stuff like this because they have their own Declaration of Independence, which can fetch $500,000 to $1m each."

There have been several auctions for medals from the Rising, the value of which is dependent on the colour of the story that goes with them.

"People are not just buying the medal, they are buying the whole backstory that goes with it. The story can be the more difficult part to verify. We'll ask where the medal was found, who got it and where they served. Once we've found that out, we have terrific military archives. The more famous the recipient, the higher the price."

Whyte tells of an extraordinary story of someone attempting to auction a swab taken from the face of Michael Collins - a sort of Irish version of the Turin shroud.

"It happened when he was brought up to Vincents to be cleaned for the funeral. A nurse had kept it. It was a very Catholic thing, like the relic of the saint. She put it in a little frame and signed the frame.

"Some chap had inherited it and I said, no, I don't think we can do this one, it's too macabre. Another auction house sold it and there was uproar. Mary Bannotti and Nora Owen (both relatives of Collins) were up in arms and eventually the owner gave them to the National Museum."

Taste and judgement are crucial checks and balances on the economics of auctioneering, but as Whtye tells me, it's not an exact science.

"The pen that signed the bank guarantee will probably end up in the National Museum. The other example of something current which has obvious historical and collector value in recent years was the Northern Ireland agreement, and a number of those have come on the market in recent years and gone for about €12,000.

"Those are the easy ones, I suppose. We could speculate about other artefacts of the current time that people will sell - for instance will the quit orders on houses eventually be sold? We did have a protest at one auction for an order to put a child into an orphanage in the 1930s. We had kind of looked at it and we said 'this is history.' But we had a very dignified protest from (industrial school survivor/campaigner) Christine Buckley, who died recently."

A dealer would work on a margin of 30pc to 50pc or as low as 5pc or 10pc - which seems high when compares to the margins made on houses, which are usually 1pc or 2pc. The mark-up taken by an auction houses varies, Whyte says.

"Sotheby's could take 40pc but with a big collection or a valuable item they're not charging the seller anything," Whyte says. "If you walked in there with a €10m picture under your arm, first of all they wouldn't charge you anything for it, they'd insure it for free, they'd take you out for an amazing meal, ply you with champagne, because at that level they'll make €1.5m and they'll even give you back some of that money. Christies and Sotheby's recently vied over the collection of a man called Taubman, a multibillionaire (and former chairman of Sotheby's), who had gone to jail as part of a fixing scandal."

Whyte grew up in Dublin, where his family had a city-centre business which dealt mostly glass and china, with outlets in Georges Street, Abbey Street and Marlborough Street. Ian himself grew up in Dalkey and then Sandycove.

Like a lot of family businesses Whyte's was "moribund" by the 1960s and that fact left its young heir with an uncertain future.

"Since the business I was hoping to make my life wasn't doing too well, from about the age of 15 I started dealing in stamps. I started buying and selling more stuff. I got into picture postcards and that led me to photography and maps and ancient documents."

He got his auctioneer's licence in 1976 and slowly built up the business over the coming decades, riding out the seemingly inevitable Irish economic cycles of boom and bust.

"In the early Eighties, people would come in and if we weren't able to auction what they had, they'd ask if we'd buy it ourselves, but then we'd have to go to the bank to borrow the money to do so. They called it a stocking loan, which was what farmers used. In 1982, I went to the bank to draw down the loan and they said, 'What loan?' and I said, 'The one that you've given me every year.'

"They said, 'Oh, didn't you hear? There's a credit squeeze on.' I had to get extra credit from the printer, avoid paying the VAT for a while, the rent, the landlord, everything went on hold."

Few businesses felt the dizzy madness of the Celtic tiger years which followed on quite the same level as Whytes. Whereas previously the vast majority of his business had been in the US and the UK, with a growing market in Germany too, now he could sell on his own doorstep.

"When we could sell right at home, we got lazy", he tells me, smiling ruefully. "And the artists got lazy too."

A bank made him an unsolicited offer to lend him €1m to buy whatever he saw fit - he turned it down because by then most of the real finds had gone. The old masters - Lavery, Osborne, Yeats - always fetched good prices but there weren't many of them. The prices being paid for somewhat mediocre works just became silly and there were times when Whyte "reeled back from the rostrum in shock".

He cites other examples.

"There was a Sean Keating painting in north Yorkshire and the buyer flew over to get it in a helicopter. The painting was about €600,000. The likes of Smurfit, O'Reilly, Naughton were the big dogs at auctions and I think they took great pleasure in beating each other. I called them buccaneer collectors, because they'd swagger into the showroom - 'I'll take that' - but hey, did have taste though. I will give them that."

When the crash came, the frisson of panic was felt at the rostrum too.

"There was a chap, a property developer, who sticks out in my mind. He wanted me to sell a picture and we had originally put it for €10,000-15,000 for it but he had paid €42,000 because there was some other lunatic in the room. and he asked me, 'What would we realistically get?' And I said, '€10,000-€15,000 but I am obliged to tell you we did have one offer of six. And he said, 'Take it'.

"I said, 'Are you quite sure?' and he said, 'Listen to me: the €42,000 I spent that day was nothing, I made a million that day, all on paper. The six grand now is real money because I need it to pay the school fees.'"

Whyte says that you saw stories like that across the board: "People were selling Aston Martins and Ferraris in the depth of the recession for a fraction of what they'd paid because they were getting cash and the bank had everything else."

Whyte's business made no profit between 2008 and last year, he tells me.

"This is the first year we've turned a profit for a long time, and we've shipped some heavy losses too. Even Sotheby's and Christies have not done too well, but they're insulated in a way because the very top end of the market, the Russian oligarchs and Texan billionaires, are still buying."

At the other end of the market, the lack of new homes in the city has had a huge impact. "There simply isn't enough wall space. The first thing people do when they move into a new home is put something on the wall and those pictures, that people are given as gifts perhaps, tend to range in price from €100 to €1,000 and that market is disastrous at the moment. Paintings that would have been €2,000 are now around half that price.

Timing is everything with auctions and when the excitement around the 1916 anniversary dies down a bit, Whyte expects that interest in the artefacts of the period will also dwindle somewhat.

"The interest will wane but won't die away entirely. There are always going to be serious collectors. Timing is crucial, though. I remember one auction for a telegram from Reuters to the Belfast Evening Telegraph and it was the first newspaper in the world to publish the story. Our auction of the telegram was two weeks after the anniversary and so it went for less than it would have otherwise gone for."

Whyte's partner in the business and in life is retired civil servant Marianne Newman. Ian himself is now 64, with his son Peter waiting in the wings (he would be the ninth generation of the family to run the business) but he tells me that in auctioneering the definition of retirement is slightly different.

"Retiring would mean you go into the business for five days a week, rather than seven", he chuckles. "And if you're really out of the business that's a three-day week. So I have that to look forward to!"

The Eclectic Art auction will have a viewing at Whytes on Molesworth Street from May 14. The Important Irish Art auction will be on view from May 28-30 at the RDS from 10am-6pm daily. Visit

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