‘Celtic Phoenix’ effect as art and antiques market recovers

Salerooms report their best year in a decade, and predict further gains in 2018

Almost 10 years on from the 2008 banking crisis and subsequent economic crash, the market in Irish art, antiques and collectibles has undergone a remarkable recovery, and 2017 was its best year in a decade. At the risk of tempting fate, Dublin auctioneer Ian Whyte has described the upturn as an example of the "Celtic Phoenix"; barring unforeseen events, he and other auctioneers are predicting 2018 to be another good year in salerooms. Like the stock market and property market, strong demand and a limited supply of high-quality assets is propelling prices higher.


The country's biggest and longest-established firm, Adam's in St Stephen's Green, Dublin, described 2017 as "very successful", with turnover up by 30 per cent over 2016 to €11.25 million. In the art market, early 20th-century paintings by "blue chip" artists, particularly Jack B Yeats, Sir John Lavery, Paul Henry and Sean Keating, continue to be the most sought-after, but Adam's said that demand for "Moderns" (later 20th-century Irish art, for which prices had plunged) was "resurgent" – particularly for work by Colin Middleton, Louis le Brocquy, Gerard Dillon and Basil Blackshaw.

The highest price achieved at Adam's was, inevitably, for a Jack B Yeats, whose painting of Dubliners at the seaside, By Merrion Strand, sold for €450,000 in November – within the estimate of €300,000-€500,000. Yeats and Paul Henry accounted for no fewer than five of the top 10 art prices at Adam's.

Provenance can also boost prices, and the most notable example was the high price – €100,000, more than three times the top estimate of €30,000 – paid for The Storm by Mary Swanzy which had come from the collection of the late PJ Mara.


Adam's also sold the art collection of the late Gillian Bowler, founder of Budget Travel, and her Jack B Yeats landscape Early Morning, Cliffony sold for €70,000 – double the top estimate.

Adam's also sold the private art collections of UTV and of the Belfast-based journalist and broadcaster Eamonn Mallie. Both featured paintings by Basil Blackshaw, the Northern Ireland artist who died in 2016, and whose work flooded salerooms during 2017, including Night Rider (from the Eamonn Mallie collection) which sold for €90,000 – a strong price, albeit below the estimate of €100,000-€150,000.

Art aside, Adam’s raised eyebrows – and expectations – by claiming that, after years in the doldrums, “antique furniture is continuing to make slow but steady progress in terms of price and popularity, particularly amongst a younger cohort of home-makers who are beginning to see the great value in antiques and also the opportunity to decorate their homes in an individual style”. Some of the best examples appeared at the annual Country House Collections sale – held in Townley Hall, Drogheda – but “brown” furniture and silver were also popular staples of the regular “At Home” Sunday auctions in the St Stephen’s Green saleroom which Adam’s said are “extremely well attended – proving that these auctions have drifted into the sphere of entertainment and leisure”. Adam’s has yet to announce dates for its 2018 spring auctions but, like all Irish auctioneers, is currently seeking consignments and offering free valuations. See adams.ie


Whyte’s in Dublin’s Molesworth Street said business in 2017 was up by about 10 per cent over 2016, with total turnover in the region of €6 million. As with Adam’s, half the top 10 prices achieved for art were for paintings by Jack B Yeats and Paul Henry.

But the top lot of the year was a Blue Still Life by William Scott, the Scottish-born artist who lived for a time in Ireland, that sold for €450,000 (within the estimate of €400,000-€600,000) in May. The highest price for an Irish painting was An Irish Bog by Paul Henry – dating from 1938 – that sold for €130,000 (€90,000-€150,000).

Commenting on the demographic of bidders, auctioneer Ian Whyte said: “At the top end – €50,000 and upwards – the collectors are mainly in the 50- to 80-year-old age groups. The 30-50-year-old collectors are responsible for most of the turnover in art priced from €5,000 to €50,000, and their interests tend to be in art created in the last 30 to 40 years, but also smaller works by Yeats, Leech and other older Irish masters. There’s a good demand among younger collectors for prints by Louis le Brocquy, Patrick Scott, William Scott and Micheal Farrell.”

Whyte’s is seeking consignments for its first art auction of 2018, which will take place in the RDS on February 26th, and is hoping to “get enough good-quality art to meet the increasing demand”.

Whyte’s also specialises in the sale of historical memorabilia and other collectibles and, last January, just after the centenary commemorations had ended, sold Joseph Plunkett’s posthumous 1916 Rising medal for €40,000 – a not-insignificant sum but rather lower than expected. In September, an Irish florin (two shillings) minted in 1943 and described as “Ireland’s rarest issued coin” sold for €7,500.

Whyte’s has also identified a growing market for vintage travel posters and advertising. Among the highlights in 2017, a Great Southern Railways poster with the slogan “The Land of Eternal Youth” (yes, Ireland) sold for €2,000; a 1960s Bord Fáilte Paul Henry poster of Connemara made €1,200; and a “Guinness for Strength” poster made €1,700.

Whyte’s has announced dates for the first sales of the 2018 spring season: an “Eclectic Collector” auction on Saturday, February 3rd, offering historical, sporting, film, rock and pop memorabilia; militaria; coins and banknotes; maps, silver and various collectibles; and, on Monday, February 26th, an “Irish & International Art” auction. See whytes.ie

De Veres

Kildare Street-based De Veres said 2017 had been "a very good year", with turnover of €3.2 million and 80 per cent of lots sold. Yet again, Jack B Yeats achieved the top price of the year – his 1947 painting The Night Has Gone made €255,000 (at the low end of the estimate of €250,000-€350,000).

Indeed, Yeats accounted for three of the top five prices at de Veres in 2017. Commenting on the state of the Irish art market, auctioneer Rory Guthrie said "the supply of new buyers has continued to increase and sellers no longer look back ten years to what prices once were – they are far more interested in what the prices are today".

Guthrie said demand for more contemporary art continued to strengthen – especially for paintings by William Scott and John Shinnors. He said the firm had sold plenty of art discreetly “outside of the auction rooms with over a million euros in private sales” – a trend he sees increasing as private clients are “eager to purchase at the top end of the market” presumably away from the prying eyes of the public saleroom. No dates have yet been announced for 2018 auctions, but see deveres.ie.

Outside Dublin

The internet has transformed the fortunes of salerooms around the country. Geographic location has diminished in importance as collectors now can – and do – access online catalogues and bid from anywhere in the world. And traditional family-run auctioneering businesses are getting a 21st-century boost from new technology. Among them, Sheppard’s in Durrow, Co Laois has a big overseas online following, and the company hit the Chinese porcelain jackpot yet again this year when a Qing period blue-and-white vase sold for €740,000 – 740 times the estimate, creating a new Irish record price for an antique at auction.

Sheppard's also secured the sale of some very high-profile private collections – notably the sumptuous jewellery and designer clothes owned by the late Hollywood star Maureen O'Hara and the contents of the country house of former president of Ireland Mary Robinson and her husband Nick. Sheppard's will hold an "Attic Sale" on January 30th; and, in a further expansion of its business, will hold what it says is Ireland's first dedicated auction of rugs and carpets on Wednesday, January 24th, with examples from Donegal, Persia, India, Central Asia and Turkey. A big two-day auction, "Classical Convergences", will take place on March 6th and 7th and the deadline for consignments is February 5th. See sheppards.ie

Skibbereen, Co Cork-based Morgan O'Driscoll auctioneers held several online-only art auctions throughout the year and two big traditional art auctions in Dublin, and said 2017 was its best year since the business was established, with "turnover up by 60 per cent, with sales averaging 85 per cent and bidders in 43 countries". The year's highest price was achieved for a painting entitled Rags, Bones and Bottles by Walter Frederick Osborne that sold for €120,000 – at the top end of the estimate of €80,000-€120,000.

Morgan O’Driscoll is the only Irish art and antiques auctioneer to hold viewings in London and, he said, this boosts sales as “a great many of our Irish clients either live or work in London”. Overall, 35 per cent of lots in 2017 were bought by online bidders overseas bidders – some in countries with “with scant Irish connections, among them Ghana, Brazil and Chile”. O’Driscoll said “there was also an encouraging move in that over the past decade the average age of buyers has been 55-plus, but this year it dropped down to 45-plus”. He has also noted “a marked increase in sales of postwar and contemporary art; a large demand for paintings and sculpture in the €2,000-€10,000 bracket; and, despite sculpture representing only 3 per cent of the international art market, a steadily growing interest on the part of Irish collectors, particularly for pieces by sculptors John Behan, Rowan Gillespie and FE McWilliam”.

The first online Irish Art auction of 2018 is currently under way, and bidding ends on Monday, January 22nd. See morganodriscoll.com

Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers, the leading specialist in rare books and manuscripts, sold thousands of rare items during 2017, including hundreds of lots from the Yeats Family Collection and an original manuscript page from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake that made €27,000 in May.

Among highlights already announced for its April 2018 auction in Dublin is a first edition copy of Joyce's Ulysses – one of the very rare 100 copies (out of a total first edition of 1,000 copies) printed on Dutch hand-made paper and signed by the author. The estimate has not yet been announced but this sale will be watched closely by book collectors as another copy, with a top estimate of £250,000, failed to sell in a Literature auction at Sotheby's in London before Christmas.

Dates have already been announced for a Fine Art auction on Tuesday, February 27th in Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny, and a rare books auction in Dublin on Tuesday, April 17th. See fonsiemealy.ie

Also based in Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny, the separate Mealy's auctioneers said "2017 was a great year" and that it its business had been boosted by an increase in private sales and consulting. One of the surprises of the year came during an auction in September when a rare 1920s German "Bonzo Bank" mechanical money-box by Saalheimer & Strauss sold for €8,500 – over four times the top estimate of €1,500-€2,000.

A Donegal carpet, in a design attributed to Gavin Morton and GK Robinson, made €20,000 – almost double the top estimate of €7,000-€11,000.

George Mealy said: “There is definitely a return to form across all aspects of the market, but especially the middle market, which has been growing steadily since 2015. Prices are rising and the market appetite for antiques and collectibles is growing. We are seeing more and more new buyers, especially those in their 30s, which is a good sign that antiques are once again being seen as in vogue or fashionable.”

Dates for the spring 2018 auctions will be announced soon on mealys.ie