Thursday 21 February 2019

Hard times for Irish masters as recession hits the auction room

But the Knight of Glin raises twice his expectations and saves his ancestral home, writes Bernard Purcell

For several years the art market has mirrored the Irish economy with the annual sales of Irish art at Christie's and Sotheby's, and beyond, reflecting conspicuous consumption at grossly inflated prices.

That ended in London this week. Works by the likes of Jack B Yeats, John Lavery, Louis Le Brocquy and William Orpen elicited little interest where just a short time ago bidding would have been furious, with an eye not just to the speculative gain but also to the bragging rights.

Just as in the wider "real" economy, it was left to the taxpayer to step in and rescue a revered household name, with the purchase of the much-publicised portrait of celebrated tenor Count John McCormack by Sir William Orpen by the National Gallery of Ireland for €404,600.

The 1923 oil painting, owned by the subject's grandson, was withdrawn from auction at Christie's in London on Friday morning when it failed to make the reserve price.

A bit like the property market, those with money gathered as much to watch prices struggle as to make a purchase.

The McCormack, Lot 49, was listed at a reserve price of between €430,000 and €640,000.

Bidding, in sterling, opened at around half that, £200,000 (€225,000) with a spirited and rapid attempt to work it up to £220,000, then £240,000, then £260,000, but there were no takers and it was withdrawn considerably below the lowest reserve. The National Gallery of Ireland stepped in and a price of €404,600 was eventually agreed.

Item after item opened at well below the reserve price with only a select handful, such as Paul Henry's Sunshine in Kerry exceeding the lower reserve. Its reserve was between €110,000 and €160,000 but it opened at €90,000 and sold at €146,000.

Another centrepiece of the sale, again a portrait by Orpen, Lewis R Tomalin had a sterling reserve of between £150,000 and £250,000. It sold to the opening bidder for £40,000. Sir John Lavery's Miss Cicely Frances Wedgwood sold for just over half its lower reserve of €75,000. Three works by Jack B Yeats barely cleared their reserve.

Eight out of nine works by Louis Le Brocquy sold for either half or just over half of the reserve price.

In all, 81 items in the Irish sale sold for €2,093,079.

Many of the vendors were selling through galleries and opted to remain anonymous. One can only speculate that in some instances the owners were trying to liquidate assets to combat the "crunch" or reversed fortunes.

Desmond FitzGerald, aka the Knight of Glin, was modest, direct and forthright about this when, in the same auction room, he sold various heirlooms, pieces of furniture and artworks the day before the Orpen/McCormack sale.

He hoped to raise about a million euro through the sale of 198 items to safeguard the running of his ancestral home and hotel, the 18th century Glin Castle, for the next year or two. Business has been hit by the fall in overseas visitor numbers.

He made no bones about why he was selling and confessed to being apprehensive but he was pleasantly surprised to realise almost twice as much as he hoped. His collection of 161 items, including several sought-after pieces of Irish Georgian furniture such as a €103,278 George II writing bureau, were snapped up by the trade and private buyers.

Euphemisms abound, just as they do in the property market.

Mention of "recession" is quickly corrected -- often in mock earnest -- to "adjustment" and lots are "keenly priced".

For the genuine art lover there are now frequently some beautiful pieces to be had at fair prices, so long as their interest is primarily aesthetic and not speculative.

This was demonstrated as the collection of the late Vincent Ferguson went on sale on Friday afternoon: a lovingly-maintained and crafted collection of newer works by artists who had been befriended and supported by the collector.

The 128 works on offer epitomised good taste, a keen eye and a genuine love of the best of modern Irish art.

Eighty-five of them sold, just about two thirds in all, many for hundreds of euro and others for thousands, realising a total of approximately €486,000. The art collector and journalist Eamonn Mallie, who wrote Blackshaw: The paintings 2000-2002, watched the sale of the Blackshaws, at prices ranging from €39,000 to €68,000 a piece, with all the pride of a parent or grandparent watching their child excel at the school concert or sports day.

"People want something new, something different, something challenging, something special and [Blackshaw's] work has that. Blackshaw identifies with the Travellers and admires them as people on the edge of society.''

"They have a Bacon-esque quality," said Mr Mallie.

Johanna Baring of Christie's, who organised the South Kensington sale of the Ferguson collection said: "What this sale demonstrates is that in the present market people respond well to something fresh, eclectic and where they can be certain of the provenance.

"These were sourced from the artists, many of whom the collector befriended. Just as we saw in the Glin sale, provenance is so important."

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