Peril and paintings: From East Germany to Irish auctions

Life’s Work: Christine Ryall, now Ireland consultant to Christie’s, escaped to West Germany with her family as a girl


Christine Ryall is the Ireland consultant to Christie’s, the international auctioneers founded in London in 1766. Christie’s has had a representative in Ireland since 1975. Her main area of expertise is in British and Irish art. She’s responsible for client development in Ireland and liaises with clients, assisting and advising them about buying and selling art at Christie’s salerooms. Items from Ireland consigned to Christie’s auctions in London tend to be valued in the region of £10,000 and up.

What’s your background?
I was born in Berlin but when the [second World] War ended we found ourselves in the Russian sector of Germany. The Berlin Wall hadn’t yet been built but the Russians closed the border [with West Germany] in 1949, and you’d be shot if you tried to cross. My father had escaped to West Germany earlier, after two failed attempts. In 1950 my mother and I made our escape. Just the two of us. I had no siblings. It was too dangerous to try to cross in Berlin so we went to Magdeburg, a city that was then part of the GDR [formerly East Germany]. We had a guide and we crossed the border into the west through the woods. We had to pay the guide. We had nothing except a little brown suitcase, which my mother carried. I was seven years old and was told it was an adventure – going through the snow. We were told not to look back and to keep going. We would have been shot if we had been discovered. We had to leave my grandmother behind. She was too old for the journey. We couldn’t even tell her we were going. In West Germany we were reunited with my father. We started with nothing in the West. Two years later the East German authorities allowed my grandmother to leave and to join us in the West. They didn’t want old people; they were regarded as a burden.

How did you adjust to life in the west?
When I arrived in West Germany I saw oranges and bananas for the first time. When I was given both for the first time I bit directly into the unpeeled fruit and thought they were horrible. I’d started school in East Germany, where we’d had to learn Russian, so I had to start all over again at school. Later on I studied languages and art in Bristol, Paris and Stuttgart.

How did you end up in Ireland and get into this business?
Because I fell in love. In the 1960s I was working for British Airways in Berlin, and a friend asked me if I’d like to visit Ulster – which I’d never hear of – as she had an invitation to a party in Omagh. We flew in to Belfast, arriving at midnight. At the party I met Patrick, and there was an immediate spark of mutual attraction. We got married in 1967, and I moved to Ireland. I had hoped to get a job with Aer Lingus but I didn’t speak Irish, so that wasn’t possible. Then I heard about a job with Phillips International Art Auctioneers (now Bonhams), who wanted to appoint a representative in Ireland. I applied, was interviewed in London and got the job. I was interested in art but had a lot to learn, and they arranged some training for me in London. I’ve been learning ever since. I was their representative here for 14 years when Christie’s invited me to join them.

Career highlight?
There have been many highlights but the most enjoyable and satisfying one was finding a Francis Campbell Cadell oil painting in a bungalow in the wilds of Wicklow, which was a huge surprise for the unsuspecting owner. I had gone to the house to value some furniture and we were sitting in the kitchen having a cup of tea when I spotted a picture hanging over the sink. It was unframed and some of the paint was flaking off. I was bowled over when I realised what it might be. It had been bought for £1 at a house clearance sale. It went on to make £67,000 sterling at a Christie’s sale.

What advice would you give collectors/investors?
Never stop learning – learn as much as you can. Visit museums and galleries and go to auctions and never stop asking questions. I’ve dragged Patrick through galleries and museums all over the world, and now he’s become interested. What do you personally collect and why? I collect Irish, Scottish and German contemporary paintings and Irish sculpture, simply because they appeal to me. I don’t buy for investment; I buy what I like and what I can afford.

What would you buy if money were no object?
I would probably go mad and buy all the time. A Jack B Yeats painting (with a horse in it), a painting by William Scott, anything by Van Gogh , Henry Moore sculpture, Barry Flanagan sculpture, Dame Barbara Hepworth sculpture and endless more.

What’s your favourite work of art and why?
I have always been an admirer of Van Gogh and my favourite is The Yellow House, which I saw recently in Amsterdam. It blew me away.

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