Art market perking up after years in the doldrums
When a William Scott painting, Blue Still Life, was sold at Whyte's Irish & International Art Auction in Dublin earlier this summer for €460,000, observers of the art scene began to sit up and take notice.
The sale was taken as an indication that Irish art, in some ways like the economy and the property market, was 'on the up' after years in the doldrums.
Another highlight of the same sale was Irish artist Louis le Brocquy's tapestry Adam and Eve in the Garden (estimate €80,000- €120,000), which sold for €140,000.
Art auctioneer Ian Whyte, based in Molesworth Street, Dublin, was prompted to declare that this was his firm's best sale since 2007, adding: "The Celtic Phoenix is in full flight."
"It's on its way back" he explained this week. "The art market tends to follow the property market and the general economy, so people have more money to spend on things, you can see that."
Around the corner on St Stephen's Green, James O'Halloran, the managing director of fine art auctioneers James Adam & Sons, agrees: "It was a shot in the arm for the market... but it is certainly not back to the levels it was, but that was just madness."
Even though the Scott painting went to an English buyer and the Louis le Brocquy piece to the United States, there is a stirring in the market linked to new money and a new confidence that if you do spend considerable sums and buy good quality art, you will now be able to sell on again without suffering a catastrophic loss.
This was clear from the sale of the late Gillian Bowler's collection at Adam's Important Art Sale on May 31. O'Halloran, who presided over a packed salesroom, says that 91pc of the lots were sold, many above the estimates, but not dramatically so.
"I wanted to get something from that sale because Gillian was a friend of mine, but also because she had such good taste, but the prices were just too high, I wasn't expecting that," one collector told me during the week. It is also believed that the international auction house Sotheby's, which sold art worth €2.1m at its Irish Sale in London, September 2016, intends to return to the Dublin market after a long lay-off.
"We have found the last two years have been very good," says Oliver Gormley of Gormley's Fine Art, which operates galleries in Dublin and Belfast. "Many of our clients are in the 35-55 age group. They are at an age when they are upgrading or changing their houses and want a nice piece of art - and when they get one, they want more," he says, referring to people who are buying right across the spectrum, from established artists to Andy Warhol or Banksy prints.
It is a sentiment echoed by James O'Halloran of James Adam & Sons. Good paintings from good artists are selling for good money.At the recent Adams sale, a Patrick Collins painting, The Bath, estimated at €20,000 to €30,000 went for €33,000. It was originally acquired by The Dubliners singer Luke Kelly from the artist and later sold to Gillian Bowler by his second wife, Madeleine Seiler. In a way, it was a painting that illustrates the complex nature of the art market. "There haven't been good ones [by Collins] coming on the market so he hasn't performed well, but this was a good one and the price was fair," says O'Halloran.
But back in the boom times of the Celtic Tiger when people were "losing the run of themselves", as O'Halloran says, and had money "burning a hole in their pocket", they were paying four and five times the estimate price for certain artists.
"People who made a pot of money were spending it and then the whole thing fell off a cliff," he says. "It is much better for the market to be steady - a bit of progress. But when it gets 10 times the estimate, either we've got it hugely wrong or people are pushing themselves and others and paying huge prices for things that are not worth it...it defies logic."
A much talked-about example in art circles was a collection of three Louis le Brocquy paintings, including Sick Tinker Child, which sold at an Adam's/Bonham's sale in Dublin in 2006 for €1.65m. The buyer subsequently died and the collection was sold at Sotheby's in London in late 2014 by his estate for around €630,000.
"In 2008, we were just trying to keep the doors open," says Oliver Gormley. "If you had, say, a Dan O'Neill which was bought for €100,000 you could offer it for €40,000, but there was nobody with the money to buy it... so it wasn't that the value had fallen, just nobody had the money."
According to Ian Whyte, May sales were the best since 2007. "Even in the recession there were people with money, but they didn't want to spend it because they didn't want to look flash and they weren't sure where the art market was going at the time." But he also had a successful recent sale of paintings, many for less than €1,000 which went very well.
"A lot of young collectors are coming in, they've bought houses or apartments and they want something original to hang on the wall," he says, so the art market is also tied closely to the building boom.
"Many of the younger buyers are much better informed and have been doing their homework," says O'Halloran.
"They love real information and are looking for things with a good provenance... if it is coming from a good collection and if it is something that is fresh to the market and hasn't been doing the rounds."
The Irish art market, characterised by Paul Henry, Jack B Yeats, Sir John Lavery, Walter Osborne and William Orpen, took off with the advent of a new breed of international Irish businessman. Michael Smurfit, Tony O'Reilly, Lochlann Quinn, Martin Naughton and Tony Ryan in particular had plenty of money and they wanted to fill their homes with top-drawer Irish art. It all went to another level when Coolmore Stud magnate John Magnier paid £10.3m (€11.7m) for Sir Joshua Reynolds's Portrait of Omai in 2001.
Perhaps less well known were the collectors of modern art like Vincent Ferguson, George and Maura McClelland and Gillian Bowler.
The art market was collateral damage from the property collapse and banking crash. For a number of years, the market almost relied on people trying to offload what they bought in the boom or flogging the corporate art collections of Anglo Irish Bank and Bank of Ireland, which were seen as too ostentatious in the new age of austerity.
Now things are changing again, but at a moderate pace. "New collections are beginning to come on the market, people are getting their confidence back, and it's steady rather than Tigerish," adds O'Halloran of James Adam & Sons.
Whether it is a Paul Henry or an Andy Warhol, the market is back and with so many grand houses under construction with new money, there are plenty of blank walls awaiting that splash of colour that will transform a room, no matter how grand, from the ordinary to the exquisite.