Sunday 18 February 2018

Art collection flies out of bank's vaults as shares tumble further


It was a night when most people would rather have their money in a painting by Basil Blackshaw than shares in the once gilt-edged Bank of Ireland.

All day the bank shares had tumbled, and all night the value of its art collection had soared.

"It's a bit like buying bits of the Titanic," said one observer on the steps of the ballroom of the Shelbourne Hotel as auctioneer James O'Halloran of James Adam and Sons sold off a slice of art history over a single evening.

Everything was for sale and there were no reserves as the work of some of Ireland's best-known artists went under the hammer.

Bidders had swarmed into the ballroom to get the early seats. There were toffs, shareholders, art dealers and 'tyre kickers' occupying every bit of the room and a bank of telephones to the right-hand side accepting bids from dealers and the auction house's more discreet clients.

But compared with outside -- where there was an air of hysteria with the world's media camped on Merrion Square watching our world collapse -- there was an air of quiet wealth inside the ornate ballroom of Dublin's finest hotel.

Despite the threat of protests and the outrage of one of Ireland's best-known painters, Robert Ballagh -- whose car dealer son carried a placard denouncing the sale -- there was no shortage of buyers anxious to inflate the reputations of some of Ireland's best-known artists -- and get a bargain in the process.

"There was a large group of regulars -- but the room was full and there were a lot of people we didn't know at all," Mr O'Halloran said later.

"They were people drawn by the publicity, or else they were looking to buy from a prestigious collection like the Bank of Ireland."

As Louis le Brocquy, Norah McGuinness, Basil Blackshaw and a host of other names proved popular choices there was just one unsold painting at the end of the night -- an enormous Barrie Cooke which failed to attract a bidder, almost certainly because of its size.

By Friday afternoon more than €1m of the €1.5m spent on the night had already come in as anxious art lovers sought to get the work on their walls without delay.

The buyers had different reasons for splashing their cash on art -- but some were certainly influenced by the financial meltdown going on around them, the collapse in bank shares, the uncertainty surrounding the euro and the prospect of rising taxes.

"With a piece of art at least you have something solid," said one well-heeled bidder.

"And a good piece will hold its value, which is more than can be said for money in the bank at the moment."

And were there any bargains to be had on the night?

"Some might be considered when we look back, but most of them went for a fair price," said Mr O'Halloran.

"Of course, it wasn't like the height of the boom, but these are different times, and it certainly illustrated that there is still money out there."

The proceeds of the sale will be distributed to arts and community groups through a Bank of Ireland foundation.

Sunday Independent

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