Surrounded by beautiful things for 30 years: James O’Halloran, furniture and fine art expert

“I have the kind of taste I can’t afford.”

James O’Halloran of Adam’s fine art auctioneers: “When I get into a house to do an insurance valuation, it is not unusual to see a really expensive painting above an inexpensive Ikea item.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

James O’Halloran of Adam’s fine art auctioneers: “When I get into a house to do an insurance valuation, it is not unusual to see a really expensive painting above an inexpensive Ikea item.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

One of the country’s leading furniture and fine art specialists, James O’Halloran considers himself fortunate that, as a lad fresh out of college at 21, he landed in Adam’s of St Stephen’s Green in a job that he still loves more than 30 years later. Founded in 1887 by James Adam, a Scot, the company, still flourishing under his name, is a familiar Dublin landmark at the junction of Kildare Street with an enviable reputation for specialist sales and valuations. Many world records have been achieved in its salesrooms over the decades, particularly in Irish art.

A graduate of UCD where he studied history of art, English and philosophy, O’Halloran remembers starting as an assistant in the salesroom in his first suit (“one of what was to be many from Michael Barrie”) when the business involved selling property as well as fine art, “and the trucks would roll up every single week and we had sales of 500-700 lots every fortnight. We do things differently nowadays – we can still have them but it is important to make money out of them,” he adds.

Affable, patrician and now managing director of the company, he says that “it is a sorry day if I don’t learn something new. I love handling and working with beautiful things, though unfortunately I have the kind of taste I can’t afford.”

In his cluttered but comfortable office, paintings are everywhere – leaning up against the sofa, hanging on the walls, wrapped and packed and lying on chairs, while a new arrival of ornate 18th-century French ormolu and enamel clocks have been placed on a shelf. There’s a painting by Margaret Stokes beside the window, an abstract by John Noel Smith beneath it and over the door a sea view of Kilbaha, Co Clare, where he has a family holiday home.

“I can put things up that I like, albeit they are transitional because they pass out of my hands,” he says. A copy of the two-volume Dictionary of Irish Artists and Gilbert’s History of the City of Dublin lie on the table.

Phone calls from executors

Tastes change and the mix of the old and new are what people want now. “Young people are not interested in old furniture, though there are reasonable numbers of others who love the idea of having something old and recycling older things. When I get into a house to do an insurance valuation, it is not unusual to see a really expensive painting above an inexpensive Ikea item. They will go to town on buying a fine painting that their friends will recognise.”

He recalls in particular a client who lived in Bermuda who loved his pictures, and when he became ill decided to send all his furniture and paintings to Ireland. “His daughter showed me a picture in the boot of her car – it was a Lillian Davidson, who is one of the great unsung mid-century modern heroes. I would describe her as a female Paul Henry because she captured the light of Connemara and its luminosity so well. This was a view of a Connemara market scene with women in shawls and it had the initials LD at the bottom. It made €35,000-€36,000. I knew he had good things.”

Irish painting is very strong, he says. “and it was in 1989 that we noticed for the first time the voracious appetite for good Irish painting, the first to recognise the importance of the Irish art market. Brian Coyle set up a special sale of Irish art which we are still doing four times a year. The more bankable are artists like William Orpen, Sean Keating, Jack Yeats, Mary Swanzy, and Mainie Jellett, who have shown over their careers that they have been consistent in their appreciation, and collectors want their work.”

The company has sold hundreds of paintings by Paul Henry, a particular favourite. “Of all the paintings coming through the recent downturn, the Paul Henrys have retained their value. I sold one for €400,000 – the potato diggers on Achill.”

Advice for the less-affluent

What sells currently is “pretty, decorative furniture like log buckets in reeded timber with simple brass swing handles and bands of brass. People use them for magazines or logs and they are handsome and work well in all sorts of environments, even modern dockland apartments.” Other popular, versatile items include dining tables that can reduce in size and be taken out for a crowd at Christmas or other occasions. Good investments are top-end collections of Sevres or English 18th-century porcelain along with silver. “Silver continues to be a really good seller because not only is it intrinsically valuable but is incredibly versatile and useful.”

Painting, however, O’Halloran argues, “is the big collection sector of our time. The big auction houses in London are losing interest in the decorative arts because of the incredible amounts of money being spent on art. I look at the results of big modern art sales in New York and half of the artists I have never heard of and they are making millions and have nothing to do with the ordinary man in the street.”

This summer for the sixth year, Adam’s hosted its Summer Loan show, which has become a major fixture on the visual arts calendar. The focus this year was on George Campbell and the group of fellow artists he gathered around him known as the Belfast Boys. “It’s our altruistic side that gives us the opportunity to show off and pull things together from private houses in a more casual fashion than a gallery. A lot of clients like that,” he says.

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