Return of the good times? The art and antiques market – highlights of 2013

Sat, Dec 28, 2013, 01:00

The international art and antiques market is booming. During 2013 many auction records were smashed and the global super-rich spent billions on trophy assets at auctions in London and New York.

In Ireland, leading auction houses spoke cautiously about the first signs of recovery after the 2008 crash when prices slumped by 50 per cent or more. Some buying seems to be fear-driven. Higher taxes on savings, and lingering fears about the safety of bank deposits, continued to fuel demand for alternative investments.


Like his work or loathe it, 2013 will be remembered as the year of Francis Bacon. The Dublin-born artist’s triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud sold for $142.4 million (€105.3 million) at Christie’s in New York on November 12th and entered the record books as the most valuable work of art ever sold at auction. It is rumoured to be destined for a museum in Qatar.

The following day, Sotheby’s in New York sold Andy Warhol’s Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) for $105 million, a record price for the artist. The two auctions raised a combined total of more than $1 billion in just 24 hours.

The results confirmed the current pre-eminent status of post-war and contemporary art (which refers to work by artists born after 1910).

The glories of the Old Masters seemed cheap by comparison. At Bonhams in London, a painting by 18h-century French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Portrait of François-Henri d’Harcourt, sold for £17.1 million, (€20.3 million) the highest price for an Old Master painting at auction in 2013. At Christie’s New York, Madonna and Child with Young Saint John the Baptist (known as the “Rockefeller Madonna” because it had been in the private collection of the eponymous banker) by Sandro Botticelli sold for $10.4 million (€7.5 million). And Sotheby’s in London sold a pair of paintings of Venice by Canaletto for £9.6 million (€11.4 million).

In Ireland, the highest price paid for a painting was achieved at de Veres in Dublin where The Ferry by Walter Frederick Osborne made €490,000. Adam’s sold The Potato Diggers by Paul Henry for €400,000, a record price at auction for the artist.

In London, the top Irish lot of the year was Sir William Orpen’s Portrait of Lady Idina Wallace which sold, at Sotheby’s, for £962,500 (€1.1 million).

The sleeper of the year emerged at Bonhams in London, in July, when a 19th-century painting by William Henry Bartlett titled The Last Brief Voyage: A Connemara Funeral, or The Emigrant’s Departure sold for £85,250 (€101,000), almost 10 times the estimate. The painting last changed hands in 1956 when it was sold for £26.

In September, Adam’s, on the instructions of the liquidators, sold the remnants of the former Anglo Irish Bank’s surprisingly modest art collection for €281,000. It was almost double the minimum estimate but still just a fraction of the €25 billion which it has cost the State to bail out the failed bank. And Nama, having slashed prices, finally sold off all but one of the remaining paintings from financier Derek Quinlan’s art collection at Christie’s.


In July, at Sotheby’s in London, a set of six “exercise books” containing the handwritten manuscript of Samuel Beckett’s first novel, Murphy, sold for £962,500 (€1,143,000) to the University of Reading.

In New York, Sotheby’s sold a first-edition of the 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald for $112,500 (€81,818).

Several Civil War-era and 1916 items appeared and auction throughout the year and sold well.

Adam’s sold an original copy of the 1916 Proclamation for €96,000 and a letter, betraying Michael Collins, written by Harry Quinlisk sold for €3,800.

At Sotheby’s in New York, one of only 11 surviving copies (of just 1,700copies) of the Bay Psalm Book, the first English language book printed in what is now the United States, set a new world auction record for any printed book when it sold for $14.1 million (€10.25 million).


Auction sales of Victorian 19th-century “brown furniture” remained in the doldrums but auctioneers reported that “exceptional items” of Georgian furniture could still command strong prices.

At Adam’s Country House Collections sale in Slane Castle, an Irish pier table (a side table designed to stand against a wall between windows), made during the reign of George II, circa 1740, sold for €90,000.

There was also evidence of demand for 20th-century pieces which are increasingly seen as collectible. De Veres, which holds twice-yearly specialist sales of “design classics”, reported interest in both Art Deco furniture from the early and mid-20th century, and Scandinavian and Italian pieces from the 1960s and 1970s.

Jade and porcelain

A 17-piece collection of Chinese jade,

inherited by a man in Co Offaly, and consigned “in a Dunnes Stores bag” to Sheppard’s auctioneers in Durrow sold for €110,300. It’s top estimate was just €15,000.

An antique Chinese bowl, 14cm high, from the Russborough House, Co Wicklow collection of the late Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, sold at a Sotheby’s in London for more than €500,000.



Sotheby’s in London sold a Meissen porcelain figure of a monkey taking snuff for £818,500 (€972,250).

Whyte’s held Ireland’s first dedicated sale of rock and pop memorabilia at the RDS in Dublin in March and a unique acetate recording of Elvis Presley’s That’s All Right Mama sold for €64,000 .

In Geneva, “The Pink Star”, a 59.6-carat internally flawless fancy vivid pink diamond sold for $81.3 million (€59 million) at Sotheby’s and was renamed the “Pink Dream” by its new owner.

Taxidermy is undergoing a most unexpected revival in popularity and numerous examples appeared at auction throughout the year. The most spectacular selection was offered by Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers where an Indian tiger-skin rug, with “snarling” head mount, by the British Raj taxidermist, Van Ingen & Van Ingen of Mysore made €3,200, three times the estimate.

At Christie’s in London, paint brushes, stored in a Batchelors butter bean tin and once owned by Francis Bacon made £33,750 (€40,000). The brushes were reputedly used by Bacon to paint that portrait of fellow-artist Lucian Freud in 1969.

The catalogue for Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers’ Dublin sale in July of rare books and manuscripts included an unusual lot, valued at up to €600, and described as a 1940s “Garda Siochana Pocket Photographic Record of Persistent Criminals” containing photographs and brief details of “active criminals in Cork City and vicinity”. The item was withdrawn from the auction over concerns that some of those featured might still be alive.

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