Life’s Work: Arabella Bishop, head of Sotheby’s Ireland

‘You never know what the next telephone call or meeting might bring’


Arabella Bishop is head of Sotheby’s Ireland. Sotheby’s is an international auction house with a global network of 90 offices in 40 countries including Ireland, where the Dublin office is located at 29 Molesworth Street. She helps clients with valuations on all fine art and antiques and recommending the best route to auction. She also offers advice on buying at Sotheby’s auctions, which are held in salerooms worldwide, and assists clients with a growing number of private sales.

What is your background?

I grew up in gorgeous Co Galway. My father was the master of the local hunt and my mother jointly set up the Connemara Trail – horse-trekking holidays which follow a route between Clifden and Galway – in the 1970s, so we were surrounded by hounds and horses growing up. I went to the local primary school and then afterwards to a boarding school in England – Westonbirt School near Tetbury in Gloucestershire. I spent a year in Florence studying history of art, art restoration and Italian. It is still one of my favourite places to visit. Then I went to Trinity College Dublin where I read history of art and classical civilisation.

How did you get into the business?

From the age of 15, I was lucky because I knew I wanted to be involved in the art world in some capacity. After Trinity, I was given the opportunity of working for another international auction house, Bonhams in London, where I started as a porter. That experience was invaluable, you get to see how the business works and you learn the ropes – I became a dab hand a lifting furniture and hanging pictures!

Over the following seven years, I went on to become an auctioneer and ran the 20th-century Russian art sales and 19th-century British and continental art sales before starting with Sotheby’s. There were sales every week so I got to handle and see hundreds of paintings – it was the best foundation for my career going forward. Now, as head of Sotheby’s Ireland, I spend a good deal of time driving around the country meeting people and hearing their stories in a way I would never otherwise be able to do. It has given me a huge insight into Ireland and its heritage. Being part of one of the biggest international auction houses also gives you access to specialists in every field, and listening to their knowledge and expertise is fascinating. You never stop learning.

Career highlight?

I have worked in the industry now for more than 23 years so there have been many and I have enjoyed every moment of it. I always think of the Confucius quote “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life”. I am fortunate to have seen some of the best collections and have met people all over the country; many clients have become friends. You never know what the next telephone call or meeting might bring and that is what makes the job so exhilarating and continually interesting.

I will always remember when in 2001, at the Sotheby’s Irish sale in London, we sold Sir William Orpen’s Portrait of Gardenia St George with Riding Crop for £1.98 million – more than three times the top estimate. Henry Wyndham was the auctioneer and the saleroom burst into applause. The painting was purchased by an American private collector. It was and still is the world record for an Irish artist at auction – that’s if you do not include Frances Bacon as Irish.

What advice would you give collectors/investors?

Buy what you love. There is nothing more exciting than when you see a work of art and you get that instant connection, that gut reaction. Ireland is fortunate to have such a strong affinity with the arts, we have some superb galleries throughout the country. Look at exhibitions, go to auctions, talk to the specialists – it’s what we’re here for. Do your research. There are great websites such as Artnet, which lists all prices for works of art sold at auction internationally. This is a good time to buy Irish art which is recovering in value after prices dropped during the economic crash.

What do you personally collect and why?

When I started out I very much veered towards 19th-century art, it was the field I was involved with, but over the years, and I see this with many collectors, your tastes can change or expand into other fields. In 2006, we started an annual sale of contemporary and modern Irish art sales, the first of which broke 26 world records for contemporary Irish art. As we put together the sale, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to meet some of Ireland’s finest artists and sculptors. To be able to discuss their inspiration and aspirations brought their works even more to life.

As such, I collect contemporary Irish art, photography, sculpture and ceramics. I have a number of works including those by Diana Copperwhite, Perry Ogden, and John Doherty. I also like to support and collect Galway sculptors, ceramicists and artists such as John Behan, the late John ffrench and Sally Ann Beirne.

What would you buy if money were no object?

There is a house on an island on the west coast of Ireland that I have coveted since I was a child. I would buy that – although I know it will never come up for sale – and I would fill it with works of art by artists who love Connemara as much as I do – so, for example, Gerard Dillon.

What’s your favourite work of art and why?

Liffey Swim by Jack B Yeats in the National Gallery of Ireland. It is such an engaging picture and captures the era and the event superbly. It is pretty amazing to think it won a silver medal at the Paris Olympics exhibition in 1924. Exhibitions were part of the Olympic Games from 1912 to 1948.

See In conversation with Michael Parsons

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