Going, going, gone: the top art and furniture sales of 2019

From Chinese ‘sleepers’ to a record Yeats, it has been a busy year in Irish auction rooms

From Ernest Shackleton’s sleigh and a set of gold teeth, to a rocket launcher and a stuffed baboon, 2019 has been an interesting year in the Irish auction rooms. New records were set for works of Irish art, and a trend for vintage jewellery emerged, as did an interest in taxidermy. Here are some of the highlights of the year.

Sleepers and curiosities

In July, a small Chinese lacquered box sold though Mullen's in Bray for €15,000. However, after multiple attempts to secure payment, the Qing Dynasty box was relisted in a subsequent sale at €10,000-€15,000 and sold for €40,000 during a bidding war, according to Stuart Purcell, who joined Mullen's this year to head up its new collectables department.

Two further interesting pieces sold at Mullen’s were a 19th-century Tunbridge ware sewing case in the form of a grand piano that sold for €2,400 – many times its pre-auction estimate of €200-€300 – and a pair of 19th-century cases of coloured shells which achieved €2,400 against a reserve of €200-€300.

A Fonsie Mealy sale at Oxmantown Mall in Birr, Co Offaly, last March featured a tiny German marquetry box which originally came from Castletown Cox and now resides in Mexico after a bidder paid €36,000, with premiums, VAT and transport costs on top of this figure. It had been estimated at €1,500-€2,000.

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There were further gasps in the room when a Majolica urn hammered down at €16,000 against a reserve of €1,000-€1,500, and a four-poster bed (€600-€800) achieved €7,000 at the same auction.

A Ming vase discovered at a routine valuation in Blarney achieved €610,000 – €490,000 over its estimate – through Sheppard’s of Durrow, making the piece one of the most discussed items of the year. Sheppard’s also had another sleeper during the year, in the form of two small Chinese bowls that sold for €100,000, far outstripping their €8,000-€12,000 estimate.

Adam’s of St Stephen’s Green Asian Art sale also saw some strong results in Chinese antiquities: a Tianhuang imperial seal achieved €32,000 (€20,000-€30,000) a Chinese celadon double gourd vase €24,000 (€20,000-€30,000) and a Ceylonese carved ivory casket achieved €23,000, far beyond the €1,500-€2,500 reserve.

Irish historical memorabilia fetched strong prices : a signed draft of the Belfast Agreement €28,000 (€5,000-€7,000), a 1914 Howth Mauser Rifle, as used in the 1916 Rising, €10,500 (€9,000-€12,000) and Lady Lavery War Code £20 banknote €10,500 (€5,000-€6,000) – all through Whyte's.

Curious collections also fared well in the auction rooms: 11 pieces of Russian Gardner porcelain sold for a total of €47,500 at Adam's, quadrupling the pre-sale estimate, and a new world record was set for a collection of postcards at the Sean Kearns Collection, which sold for a combined €130,000 through Whyte's.

It was a good year for animal figures and taxidermy. A stuffed baboon sold for €1,200 (€500-€600) through Oliver Usher and bidders from Russia and France battled it out for the mounted tiger’s head at Fonsie Mealy’s sale of the contents of the Fortgranite estate in Co Wicklow (€8,500 against a reserve of €800.) A tiger’s head from Prumplestown House in Co Kildare achieved €2,400 (€800-€1,200) through Sean Eacrett, and further animal curios were a cast metal skull and antlers €5,400 (€2,000), a pair of taxidermy kudu heads €2,100 (€800-€1,200), a cased display of birds of prey €2,200 (€1,200-€1,500) and an alphabet to fox hunting €1,300 (€300-€400) all of which sold through Oliver Usher.

Meanwhile, two of the oddest items to enter the Irish auction world this year were a collection of gold teeth, for which John Weldon secured €480, and a rocket launcher used in the troubles which sold for €10,000 through Whyte's (€4,000-€6,000).

On the international stage, a little bell owned by the late singer and poet Leonard Cohen – who acknowledged his love of WB Yeats, as a result of being raised by an Irish nanny – achieved a whopping $81,250 ($8,000-$10,000).

Whiskey and wine

A very rare 1880s bottle of Cassidy & Co Monasterevin whiskey achieved €23,000against a reserve of €5,000-€10,000 through Victor Mee. It is one of two bottles known to exist and the second resides in the Irish Whiskey Museum. Two rare James McKendry of Ballymena Importers of Demerara and Jamaica Rum advertising mirrors sold for over €4,000 each (€1,200-€1,800) also through Victor Mee.

A case of Château Latour 1948 from a private Irish cellar was the top lot at Bonhams Fine and Rare Wine sale in London, selling for £17,925 (£6,000-8,000). A bottle of La Tâche 1934 from the same cellar sold for £8,365 (£1,000-£1,200). In total, the 23 bottle collection made £78,409, almost doubling its upper pre-sale estimate of £40,000.

Items of Irish interest sold abroad

Notable lots of Irish interest to sell abroad (English sales prices include buyer’s premium) were: Ernest Shackleton’s sledge from his Nimrod Expedition €163,718 (€67,000-€110,000) and The Bridge, by Irish-born artist Stanhope Forbes which achieved €108,941 through Bonham’s.

Also through Bonhams, a W B Yeats signed and inscribed photograph achieved £5,000 (£1,500-£2,000) and Rowan Gillespie’s Looking at the Moon sculpture created a stir when it sold for £56,312, well over the estimate of £20,000-£30,000, while Irish artist Gráinne Watts’ Bindu, stoneware and Ming porcelain work, sold for £11,900 (£4,000-£5,000).

At Lawrence's Silver sale in Somerset, a 1730 Kinsale silver marrow scoop by William/Joseph Wall sold for £8,000 almost quadruple its lower estimate of £2,500 and the Donnemara pile carpet, C.F.A Voysey (1857-1941) woven in Killybegs achieved £95,000 against a reserve of £20,000-£30,000 through Sotheby's.

Books and literature

Highlights from the sale of books was a signed first edition of Ulysses – €85,000 (€70,000-€90,000) – through Fonsie Mealy, who also sold a first (unsigned) edition of Ulysses once owned by Joyce's friend Arthur Power for €12,000 (€4,000-€6,000) and a very rare signed edition of Toome, by Séamus Heaney which was limited to 15 copies achieved €11,000 (€1,500-€2,000).

Three late 18th-century sketch books by Sophia Charlotte Haldimand achieved €10,000 (€200-€400) in less than a minute at a Sean Eacrett sale of the contents of Griesemount House in Co Kildare, while Sketches of India sold for €3,100 against a reserve of €80-€100 through Lynes and Lynes.

Irish Art

Irish art sales topped €20 million in 2019, with some new records for Irish artists and international artists sold through Irish auction houses.

Top of the bill was a new record for Jack B Yeats. Reverie, the painting purchased by Ernie O'Malley directly from the artist achieved €1.4 million at the recent Whyte's and Christie's sale, which had a combined value of €5.5 million. Also in this sale was a new record for Mainie Jellett, where The Land Éire achieved €110,000. Whyte's also had a new record for May Guinness, when Woman with Red Hair sold for €34,000, far exceeding the €6,000-€8,000 estimate.

Sotheby's Irish Art Sale in London also had strong prices for Jack B Yeats in addition to three new records for Irish artists. Hughie O'Donoghue, The Owl Run sold for €109,557 multiples over its €17,000-€28,000 estimate, Joy Gerrard, Flag achieved €14,952 (€5,000-€7,000) and Gabriel Hayes, Cork Bowler sold for €94,949 (€33,000-€56,000.). (UK prices are always listed to include buyer's premium).

Adam's of St Stephen's Green saw new Irish auction records for Mark Francis, when Critical Mass achieved €32,000 (€15,000-€25,000); Callum Innes, Cadmium Red Deep on Black sold for €26,000 (€20,000-€30,000) and Charles Tyrrell, C7.07 fetched €25,000 (€5,000-€8,000) at their mid-century auctions.

Morgan O Driscoll's top three results of 2019 were: Paul Henry, Evening in Achill €185,000 (€150,000-€250,000), which appears to be the highest price for the artist this year; Roderic O'Conor, Seated Woman in a Red Dress / Le Divan €110,000 (€150,000-€250,000); and Jack Butler Yeats, Early Morning €64,000 (€60,000-€80,000); while Lynes and Lynes achieved the upper estimate of €15,000 for Letitia Hamilton's View of the Quays Cork.

At de Vere's, top-selling pieces included Louis le Brocquy's Allegory tapestry, which attained €92,000 (€60,000-€90,000) and Rowan Gillespie's sculpture Portrait of a Dreamer, his homage to John Lennon which sold for €62,500 (€40,000-€60,000).

In keeping with the year that appears to be all about Jack B Yeats, a small oil, The White Jug – discovered in the Bank of Ireland vaults – achieved €18,000 against a reserve of €3,000-€5,000 through Fonsie Mealy.

Antique furniture

"The day of old men with hats climbing under a piece of furniture with a torch to inspect its underside are gone – they're all dying off and their knowledge with them," says auctioneer Damien Matthews, who goes on to point out the exception: "In cases of the truly special piece of Regency or Georgian furniture, then it's vital that all is as it should be as regards condition and authenticity."

An Irish Georgian mahogany dining table by the Dublin firm Williams & Gibton sold for €50,000 at Adam’s Townley Hall sale in October, making it the most expensive piece of furniture to be auctioned this year. In the same sale, a George III giltwood mirror made €22,000, while a pair of Irish George III side tables fetched €14,000.

Matthew’s sale at the Temperance Hall, Kinsale, held jointly with Ryan Auctioneers, saw a George II Irish red walnut table with carved shell decoration achieve €4,800 (€2,000-€3,000) and the large Georgian hunt table from Fortgranite achieved €25,000 (€5,000-€7,000) through Fonsie Mealy, while a smaller model sold for €3,200 (€1,000-€2,000) through Hegarty’s.

There was value to be had with a 350-year-old Charles II table which made €500 (€800-€1,200), chair €280 (€200-€300) and gate leg table €400 (€200-€400) at a recent Lynes and Lynes sale in Cork. Meanwhile, Adam’s in Blackrock had some strong results with an Irish gothic pollard oak bookcase €5,200 (€3,000-€5,000), a mid-Victorian serpentine console table €3,800 (€2,000-€3,000) and a pair of William IV mahogany bookcases €3,800 (€2,000-€2,500.) Two Waterford Crystal 11 and 12 branch chandeliers sold for €3,500 (€1,800-€2,500) each.

Jewellery

Adam's of St Stephen's Green had a good year with jewellery sales close to €3 million. Top lots included a whopper of a diamond, the 6.74ct rectangular-cut diamond which sold for €155,000 (€160,000-€200,000) and the 1960s multi-gem bracelet by Van Cleef & Arpels €55,000 (€55,000-€75,000.) A 1950s Cartier Coffee Bean suite of a pair of earrings and a brooch achieved €34,000 (€6,000-€8,000) with the 1940s Ludo diamond and gold bracelet by Van Cleef & Arpels, achieving almost five times its lower estimate of €7,000, selling for €31,000.

“This year’s sales show the high interest for signed pieces from the 1940s to the 1970s by jewellery houses such as Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. The results achieved this year are in some cases 10 times higher than what the same pieces achieved 15 years ago,” according to Claire-Laurence Mestrallet of Adam’s.

John Weldon of Temple Bar agrees: "One of the trends I've seen this year is the level of interest in branded jewellery; a diamond and kunzite cluster ring by Tiffany and Company sold for three times the estimate, achieving €1,250, and strong watch brands such as IWC, Rolex, Cartier, Omega and Jaeger Le Coultre are doing really well. Quality sells and that trend is sure to continue."

O’Reilly’s on Francis Street in Dublin had an unusual offering in addition to its single large diamond rings, which included a 4.02ct solitaire for €59,000 (€24,000-€32,000), and a 4.80ct diamond mounted in platinum, which sold for €24,000 (€11,000-€14,000.) The antique diamond, ruby and emerald picture frame that was a wedding gift to an Irish couple based in the Middle East achieved €22,000 (€12,000-€22,000).

There has been a definite trend for coloured stones in 2019. One of the highlights was the intense fancy yellow diamond ring which sold for €32,000 (€45,000-€75,000) through Damien Matthews: "It was an absolute steal as it cost over €100,000 originally."