How much does a Jack B Yeats painting cost?
A: About as much as you'd pay for a house.
In the pantheon of Irish artists, Jack Butler Yeats (1871-1957) is at the pinnacle. His work is widely known and widely loved, most famously The Liffey Swim (1923) at the National Gallery of Ireland. He is the shining star of the sale rooms (you'd be pushed to find an auction without him) and his prices are through the roof. Sometimes, amid the feeding frenzy of bidders, it seems that his work has become a prestige possession and that the conversations around it are more about money than art.
"A significant Yeats - not one of the small ones - was always the price of a modest enough home in Ireland," says James O'Halloran, auctioneer. "Even back in 1940 you would have paid €2,000 for a decent-sized Yeats, which would have been the price of a four-bedroom house in Mount Merrion."
He points to The Sick Bed (1950) (Lot 53: est. €250,000 to €350,000), one of two Jack B Yeats paintings going under the hammer at Adam's next auction of Important Irish Art. We do a quick mental calculation. You would get a house for that, but it wouldn't be a four-bed in Mount Merrion. As it happens, the auction was to have taken place on Wednesday next (March 25) but has now been postponed due to the Coronavirus outbreak. But the paintings are coming for sale in the months ahead.
The Sick Bed is an intense painting, focused on the gaze between a patient and a visitor. "Even in a painting like this, there is still a sense of something uplifting about it." O'Halloran says.
"With Yeats, there is always hope." He sees the patient as male; I think that she's female. We agree that the not-knowing is part of the joy of it. "Yeats didn't interpret work," he explains. "He got fed up with analysis or people getting him to analyse." This sets Yeats apart from, for example, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get artist like Paul Henry.
The second Yeats painting in the sale, Bound for the Islands, 1952 (Lot 36: est. €50,000 to €70,000), shows a sailor standing on a headland waving to a boat at sea. It was painted when Yeats was 80 years old.
There's a near-death eeriness about it but also something earthier. "Yeats reflected Irish life and the dignity of poverty within it," says Brian Coyle, chairman of Adam's.
In 1972, Coyle launched Adam's Irish Art first sale against a background of quiet scepticism. Would Irish collectors be prepared to fork out for Irish art? In terms of visual art, our self-esteem was low. Then a Jack B Yeats painting, The Palace, sold for £15,000. "That changed the whole thing," Coyle reflects. "It was huge money in those days. After that, Yeats' paintings became trophy possessions. A lot of people bought them to show off their money." But, as he reflects, even a trophy collection is based on some kind of appreciation. "Yeats had a great talent and when quality comes out, the money comes out to meet it."
It is in no way damaging to the reputation of the artist that Jack B Yeats came from a famous and interesting family. His brother, William Butler Yeats, (1865-1939) was a poet and a Nobel Laureate. But family connections do not guarantee high prices at auction. Witness their sister, Susan Mary (Lily) Yeats. Lily was a talented textile artist but her work is not a high flyer on the auction circuit (gender and the feminisation of needlework had a part to play in this, but now is not the moment for this particular rant).
Meanwhile Jack B Yeats, while keeping pace with property prices, has showed occasional spikes. One of these happened in 2011. It was the height of the recession and the prices of paintings were plummeting as fast as the hearts of the people who were trying to sell them. Then, A Fair Day, Mayo (est. €500,000 to €800,000) sold for €1,000,000 at Adam's. "It was bought by an Irish person, living in Ireland, it just made us feel 'wow'!
Yeats hadn't made a million in Ireland even in the madness of the Celtic Tiger but in the depths of the worst recession that any of us could remember, two people were prepared to battle it out."
The current record holder for the highest price yet paid for a painting by Jack B Yeats is held by Reverie (1931), which sold for €1,400,000 in November 2019.
The painting was part of the Ernie O'Malley Collection, auctioned in Dublin by Christie's in association with Whyte's.
O'Malley was a freedom fighter and an extraordinary writer. He bought the painting from Yeats in 1945 and wrote this about his work: "Land can become sogged with persistent rain; it is then more than ever a burden and a heart-breaking task to work, or to brood a melancholy in the mind. With shafted light after the rain comes a lyrical mood in which tender greens vibrate in tones, whins crash with yellow glory and atmosphere is radiant."
It's not just about money. Throughout his long life, Yeats had a finger on the pulse of the Irish psyche and an eye for the Irish landscape. His work is transcendent and has meaning irrespective of what it sells for. But the money is interesting too.