Will prices rise for a Louis le Brocquy?

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Prices for a Louis le Brocquy had fallen dramatically in the years before his death. But how will the art market judge his legacy, asks MICHAEL PARSONS

THE TRIBUTES paid to artist Louis le Brocquy, who died, aged 95 on April 25th, confirmed the high regard in which he was held by Irish society.

While his family, friends and admirers mourn his death, his work will now be subjected to the critical and financial re-evaluation which inevitably follows the death of any significant artist.

Louis le Brocquy’s output during an especially long career was prolific and consisted of watercolours, oil paintings, tapestries, and multiple, limited-edition lithograph prints. He also contributed illustrations for numerous publications – most famously poet Thomas Kinsella’s translation of The Táin – and such books are also collectable.

He is best known for his mid-20th-century paintings of Irish Travellers; abstract paintings of the heads of famous people including James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Bono; and, tapestries which were woven to his designs by carpet-makers at Aubusson in France.

Although some of his work is in public ownership in museums and galleries, most has, and will continue to be, bought and sold privately at auction or through art dealers.

The highest price ever paid for a painting by le Brocquy was £1.7 million (€2.1m) for A Family. The painting dates from 1951 and was bought by businessman Lochlann Quinn in 2002 – not at public auction – but from a London art dealer.

Quinn donated the painting to the National Gallery of Ireland under the scheme that allows a taxpayer credit against tax liabilities in return for donating an item of significant cultural heritage to the national collections. Ironically, the painting had been offered free to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, in the 1950s, but the offer was turned down.

A Family is one of the 10 paintings on the shortlist of “masterpieces” currently being promoted by RTÉ in a public vote to identify “Ireland’s favourite painting”.

The highest price ever paid at auction for a le Brocquy was also in London – at Sotheby’s 12 years ago – when the painting Travelling Woman with Newspaper sold for £1.15 million (€1.4m). In Ireland, the highest price at auction was achieved at Adam’s in 2006 when the painting Sick Tinker Child sold for €820,000.

But, by last year, the impact of Ireland’s economic crash was evident and prices had plummeted. The highest price paid for a le Brocquy painting in 2011 was at Sotheby’s in London where Woman in the Sunlight sold for £79,250. A few months later, two of his Traveller paintings failed to sell at Christie’s.

So where does le Brocquy’s reputation now stand in the fickle art market? Many Irish collectors – let alone casual, occasional art buyers – have never quite embraced the modern abstract art which his style epitomised. The art which has best weathered the fiscal storm is traditional and conservative – especially paintings by Sir John Lavery, Sir William Orpen, Paul Henry and early Jack B Yeats.

But Ireland’s leading fine-art auctioneers seem confident that le Brocquy’s stock will rise again.

John de Vere White, managing director of de Veres, who noted that le Brocquy’s “prices have surprisingly fallen dramatically in recent years”, was confident that “this market aberration will surely pass”.

James O’Halloran, managing director of Adam’s, said: “There is no doubt that le Brocquy’s star will rise again and probably sooner rather than later.” And at Whyte’s auctioneers, managing director Ian Whyte claimed that le Brocquy was “not just the greatest Irish artist of his generation but also the most popular”. He had, “like Jack Yeats, deliberately made his works accessible to collectors at all price levels and that will stand to his stead forever”.

The “arts establishment” – critics, curators, dealers and officialdom – pretty much unanimously regard le Brocquy’s work with reverential awe.

However, the code of omertà was, unusually and courageously, transgressed last week when the Northern Ireland journalist and art critic Eamonn Mallie commented, in a blog, that “to some in the Dublin art world” le Brocquy had “assumed a deity status” which was “a lot of nonsense”.

Mallie believed that while le Brocquy may have been a “a wonderful draughtsman”, that “didn’t make him a towering artist” and he “didn’t leave behind him a body of work sought by the world’s leading museums”.

Ultimately, the art market – and public opinion – will decide the “value” of le Brocquy’s legacy.

The weeks ahead will offer many opportunities for the various predictions to be tested as a slew of work by le Brocquy goes under the hammer in Dublin and London. All of the works being offered for sale this month were consigned to auction before his death was announced (see table).

Anyone planning to invest in a piece by le Brocquy would be well-advised to do their homework. The artist’s vast output, over seven decades, and multiple versions of the same image, can be very confusing for buyers.

For example, le Brocquy’s famous “head” paintings series featured, among others, the writer Samuel Beckett.

But there are numerous versions of Beckett’s head by le Brocquy – all of them “genuine” though with vastly different prices. An oil-on-canvas painting titled Image of Samuel Beckett (1979) sold at Sotheby’s in London for just over £400,000 (€492,781) in 2007; an oil-on-canvas painting titled Study for Reconstructed Head of Samuel Beckett sold for €140,000 at Adam’s in Dublin the following year; and, a print (number six of an edition of 100) titled Study of Samuel Beckett (2008) sold for €650 at Adam’s in 2010. Buyer beware!

There is a lot of work by le Brocquy out there and his pictures, tapestries and prints will feature in Irish and overseas salerooms for decades to come. What it’s all worth long-term is anybody’s guess.

Notable prices achieved for Louis le Brocquy at past auctions:

1 Highest price at auction overseas: Travelling Woman with Newspaper (oil painting) sold for £1.15 million (€1.41m) at Sotheby’s, London, 2002

2 Highest price at auction in Ireland: Sick Tinker Child (oil painting) €820,000 at Adam’s (in association with Bonhams), Dublin, 2006.

3 Highest price for a watercolour: Image of Francis Bacon, 1979 which sold for £153,600 (€189,017) at Sotheby’s in London, 2007.

4 Highest price for a single tapestry: Travellers, number two of an edition of nine, woven by Atelier René Duché in 1998, sold for €170,000 at Adam’s, Dublin, 2007.

5 Highest price for prints: a set of three boxed sets of 12 prints of the drawings for The Táin – €120,000 at Whyte’s, Dublin, 2006.

Le Brocquy works on sale this month

Among the highlights of Louis le Brocquy’s art being offered at five separate auctions in London and Dublin:

May 10th, Sotheby’s, London: Travelling People, a painting dating from 1945, is estimated at £60,000-£80,000 (€72,000-€96,000). This painting last changed hands, in 2005, when it was sold, also at Sotheby’s for £105,600 (€130,036).

May 21st, Whyte’s, Dublin: A full set of the 20 Táin tapestries based on the artist’s drawings to illustrate the epic poem and featuring characters and scenes from Irish mythology. Estimate, €250,000-€300,000.

May 22nd, de Veres, Dublin: Distant Image, a “head” painting, dated 1970, apparently inspired by the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The estimate is €50,000-€70,000.

This painting last appeared on the market just 18 months ago when it was sold at an Adams auction in December 2010 for €45,000.

May 23rd, Christie’s, London: The 20th Century British and Irish Art Day Sale includes a head painting, Image of Samuel Beckett, oil-on-canvas, dated 1979, with an estimate of €40,000-€60,000.

May 30th, Adam’s, Dublin: A 1951 painting Indoors, Outdoors, described as “an early masterpiece”, has an estimate of €500,000-€800,000.

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