Life’s Work: Adelle Hughes, head of the art department, Whyte’s, Dublin

‘Francis Bacon’s studio in the Dublin City Gallery is my favourite work of art’

Adelle Hughes is head of the art department and an associate director at Whyte’s Irish Art & Collectables Auctioneers in Molesworth Street, Dublin 2. She provides valuations on art works for sale, insurance and probate and researches and edits the art auction catalogues. She has worked on several large-scale valuations for both the corporate and public sectors, estates and artists’ archives as well as assisting with art publications and exhibitions. What’s your background?

I grew up in Killiney, Co Dublin, and went to secondary school at Loreto Abbey, Dalkey. I always loved art and this was encouraged at home and by teachers. My grandparents had a keen interest in local history and art, as do my parents who are modest collectors and regular visitors to exhibitions. They always attend the annual RHA exhibition and brought me along as a child. As a young teenager, I remember at one of these exhibitions seeing a still-life painting by Charles Brady depicting a slice of white bread with a speck of mint-green mould. I remember wondering how a subject so ordinary could become a painting to be celebrated. That painting has left a lasting impression on me. I saw it in a catalogue years later and it brought back memories. I don't know where it is or who owns it. I continue to admire Brady's work although I don't own one – yet.

I hold a BA honours degree in Spanish and art history from UCD and spent a year studying in Madrid at Universidad Complutense. Madrid holds a special place in my heart and is responsible for my obsession with Spanish culture, art and cinema, particularly the films of Pedro Almodóvar. I dabbled in painting and sculpture while working for an Irish start-up company, Similarity Systems, during the boom. Later I did an MA in arts management and cultural policy in UCD. In 2008 I worked with the arts organisation Burning Man and its subsidiary, the Blackrock Arts Foundation in San Francisco.

I met my husband, Mikey Stafford, a Wexford man and sports journalist, in 2010. In 2014 he was going to Brazil to report on the World Cup and we took a seven-month sabbatical to travel. We began in Brazil and together went around the world. We saw a lot of art on the trip and highlights were seeing the largest retrospective of Salvador Dalí in Latin America in Rio de Janeiro, the Botero Museum in Bogotá and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala, India.

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How did you get into the business?

I interviewed for a position as a cataloguer with Whyte’s in November 2008. The market had turned and so I didn’t experience first-hand the soaring prices achieved in Irish art in the early- and mid- 2000s. I relish the work and, thankfully, in the past couple of years the art market has begun to recover.

Career highlights?

I enjoy tracing lost exhibition records, deciphering scrawled inscriptions, identifying sitters, finding buyers, talking to clients about their collections and tastes and encouraging new collectors and patrons into the market. Occasionally a picture comes along which tells a very special story, and perhaps one of the most memorable was a portrait of Liv Hempel from 1939 by Patrick Hennessy, auctioned by Whyte's in 2011. Ms Hempel was the daughter of Dr Eduard Hempel, Hitler's envoy to Ireland during the second World War. After some research we discovered that she was still alive and traced her to New York. We met her when she subsequently visited Ireland and found her a wonderfully interesting person. Talk about a painting coming to life!

What advice would you give collectors/investors?

Cultivate your taste, make considered choices, but trust your instinct and if you need professional advice don’t be afraid to ask. One of the positive effects of the recession I see is that people are now making considered choices when they buy art. They ask themselves such questions as: Is it a good example by the artist? What is the condition? Will I need to spend money getting it reframed? Where will it hang? Will my partner like it? Indiscriminate spending rarely pays. For investors I would say, think long term; buy the best you can afford instead of mediocre examples by several artists.

What do you personally collect and why?

Buying pictures, particularly at auction, is a fantastic experience. Paintings and prints dominate on our walls, but I would love to start learning more about – and buying – furniture at some point. The majority of the pictures we have are by Irish artists, including work by Gabhann Dunne, David Eager Maher, Ciara O'Hara, Anne Hendrick, Micheál Farrell, Cecil King and Barrie Cooke. I collect because I enjoy beautiful and inspiring things in our home but I am judicious about what I spend money on. I enjoy the thrill of the hammer falling on a successful bid or the long wait for an exhibition to end so I can collect the picture that has lingered in my mind.

What would you buy if money were no object?

A painting by Francis Bacon. I have always been drawn to his work. The economy of paint, the harmony, the complexity, the rawness; it all attracts me. One of his paintings, a life-sized portrait of Henrietta Moraes made $47.8 million at auction in New York last year. At one point in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Moraes was caretaker of Roundwood House, near Mountrath, Co Laois, where my mother is from, and I heard first-hand accounts of her interactions with family friends. It is these stories, connections and emotional responses to what I see in a work of art that particularly appeals to me.

What is your favourite work of art and why?

Francis Bacon’s studio in the Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane. It’s a national treasure and an excellent example of public sector collaboration with an artist’s estate. It is somewhere I love to visit. The studio was donated to the State by Bacon’s heirs after his death and is was shipped to Dublin and reconstructed.

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