Life’s Work: Rory Guthrie, art and 20th-century furniture auctioneer
‘Nine times out of 10 your first instinct about a picture is the right one’
Rory Guthrie: ‘Never buy a poor work based solely on an artist’s reputation or fame. A bad picture is always going to be a difficult seller in any market no matter who painted it, whereas a piece of quality will always find a buyer’
Westport House, Co Mayo, which is for sale for €10 million
What’s your background?
I went to school at St Andrew’s College in Booterstown and still count some of my closest friends from my time there. I went on to study classics and later European painting at Trinity College Dublin. I’ve always had a huge interest in sports, as a player and as a spectator, and played cricket and hockey in school and college. I was lucky enough to live in “hockey rooms” in Trinity for a year.
I didn’t grow up surrounded by art but while I was in college, I got a part-time job working as an auction porter in the sale room at Hamilton Osborne King (HOK Fine Art) in Blackrock. In those days, every lot in an auction had to be brought in and out, and held aloft for viewing by a porter. It was great theatre.
My first house contents auction was at Humewood Castle in Wicklow in 1992. We were on site for two weeks prior to the sale and 3,000 people viewed the auction, which generated a lot of excitement locally. Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones bought the top lot. I was hooked from the start.
How did you get into the business?
After I graduated in the mid-1990s, I went to Australia for a year and spent six months with Christie’s in Melbourne. I then moved to London where I worked in the main Christie’s sale room on King Street for a few months.
Back in Ireland I worked with HOK for 10 years before I left to join John de Vere White in de Veres in 2005. My “interview” was over a coffee. I can remember saying that I needed to have Cheltenham race week off every year – that was non-negotiable – and 11 years on I haven’t missed a trip. John is a man of his word. He has a great eye and good contacts.
We are a good fit and have a great working relationship.
In 2003, HOK and Christie’s jointly conducted the contents auction at Lissadell House in Sligo. The crowd at the auction was the biggest I’ve ever seen.
It was big news at the time with camera crews and international media interest due to the Countess Markievicz and Yeats connections. We had porters in the grounds to spot and relay bids from the car park using radios as the house reached capacity with bidders. The Christie’s auctioneer managed only 30 lots in the first hour and there were 800 lots to sell. I couldn’t wait to get up on the rostrum there. It was an adrenalin-filled experience that gave me great confidence.
We’ve sold some great paintings in my time with deVeres. In 2007, we received a call from an Irish client living in Madrid who wanted to sell three watercolours by Louis le Brocquy.
The deadline on printing the catalogue for our forthcoming auction was imminent so after the call I went straight from the office to the airport and caught the next flight to Madrid. I left the frames with the client in the terminal and flew back to Dublin with the three pictures. They sold for €300,000.
What advice would you give collectors or investors?
Never buy a poor work based solely on an artist's reputation or fame. A bad picture is always going to be a dificult seller in any market, no matter who painted it, whereas a piece of quality will always find a buyer.
Presentation is hugely important too. The right framing and a good clean can make a big difference, while a good restorer can bring a painting back to life. Making this extra investment, when required, can pay big dividends in the sale room. To know a piece of art you have to see it in the flesh, to touch it – even smell it.
The back of a painting can often tell you more than the front and nine times out of 10 your first instinct about a picture is the right one. So don’t be afraid to ask to take a painting off the wall and hold it in your hands. You should get to know your painting as well as you can before you buy it.
What do you personally collect and why?
I constantly change the pictures and furniture in our home. My wife, Jenny, and our two daughters are sometimes driven demented by the changes. Nearly everything we have has been bought at auction, from the sofas and the furniture to the artwork, right down to our trusted 1955 Nilfisk vacuum cleaner. Danish furniture from the 1960s is beautiful in both its quality and design and reminds me of Georgian furniture in terms of its cabinetmaking and everyday functionality.
I have a serious weakness for chairs, I don’t know why. The model 78 in rosewood, by Danish designer Niels Moller, is on my wish list.
What would you buy if money were no object?
I would buy Westport House, in Co Mayo, which has a very uncertain future at the moment. I have family living in Westport and know first-hand what the house means to the town and its people. And I’d fill it with my dream collection of art, works from three masters: Edward Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère; a painting by Rembrandt because technically he’s probably the greatest painter history has ever seen; and something by Picasso for his genius.
What’s your favourite work of art?
The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio in the National Gallery of Ireland. When I was in college I used to visit frequently and stand in front of it: you’re looking at something very powerful and it’s available to view for free in Dublin.