My Life’s Work: David Britton, director at Adam’s Auctioneers
‘When I was studying at Trinity I paid my way by buying period Belleek at the auction rooms nearby’
David Britton: ‘At a house clearance I spotted some paintings that turned out to be by Sarah Purser and later sold at auction. If I hadn’t spotted them, they would have gone to landfill’
A living work of art: ‘I dream that some day I could recreate the garden at the Rodin Museum in Paris (above) in some form’
What’s your area of expertise?
My main area of expertise is 20th-century Irish Art. I’m involved in all aspects of the business and carry out valuations of collections for sale and probate.
What is your background?
I’m a qualified chartered accountant and come from a hotelier family in Donegal: I grew up in the Sand House Hotel in Rossnowlagh. I went to school in Sligo Grammar and then to Trinity College, Dublin and graduated with a degree in business studies. After college, I was articled to KPMG and after qualifying I worked in a few different jobs before returning to the family hotel. But, the antiques business always had a pull on me and, eventually, I followed my heart and joined Adam’s on the front desk. Soon after returning to Dublin, I met my wife, Karen Reihill, at an exhibition opening at the National Gallery of Ireland, where she worked as a conservator.
How and why did you get into the art and antiques business?
Both my parents were interested in antiques and furnished the hotel with pieces they picked up at local house auctions around the north west, to which I often accompanied them. Sheila Hamilton, who was born in the local “Big House”, Brown Hall in Ballintra, but who was by then living nearby at Coxton Manor, and her friend Fanny Johnson, took an interest in me and regaled me with stories of auctions of old and introduced me to subjects such as the pottery of Nanking China. Sheila still dined each night at the end of a 20-foot Georgian dining table, original to Coxton, which she had bought for £1 as it was too big for any normal house.
The Belleek Pottery was only 10 miles from home and I became interested in its history. When I was studying at Trinity, I paid my way through college by buying pieces of antique Belleek at the auction rooms nearby and selling them in the small antiques and curios shop we ran in our hotel in Donegal during the summer holidays. I had a captive audience.
In 1992, a fortnight after coming home from honeymoon, I gave up my job at Adam’s and we organised our first art exhibition in a premises on Baggot Street. Eventually we set up The Frederick Gallery on South Frederick Street and we ran it successfully for more than 10 years. It was a great and successful partnership and I owe a lot of my knowledge to Karen’s eye. At the end of 2004 I was head-hunted back to Adam’s where I became a director in May 2005, just as the art market took off.
What advice would you give collectors and investors?
Read about your area of interest before starting to collect; there are more reference books than ever. Try to view as much art as possible to see what pictures or sculptures you like. The quality of exhibitions being put on by the art galleries throughout Ireland is superb and admission is generally free.
In addition to the National Gallery of Ireland, you could visit the Crawford in Cork, the Model Arts in Sligo, the Highlanes in Drogheda and the FE McWilliam Gallery in Banbridge, all of which put on excellent exhibitions. Sign up with auctioneers to receive catalogues – or view them free online – and attend pre-auction viewings which show a great cross-section of art from all periods and at all price levels . People like me are there to help and advise.
In art you learn more by looking, but in the fine arts it is all about the feel of the object; that’s something you will never get from a reference book. I cannot understand why anyone buys reproduction furniture when you can buy the original antique version – that has a lovely patina of age – for less. Some items of antique furniture are cheaper than their modern equivalents at IKEA, and you don’t have to assemble them yourself.
Every auctioneer’s dream is to find that “hidden treasure”, but these days that happens less and less. In 2006, I was sent to do a valuation of the contents of a small council house in the north inner city for an executor’s sale. From the outside, the house didn’t look as if it had the slightest potential. Inside, it wasn’t much better. Newspapers, black bin bags and reproduction prints were stacked everywhere. It was hard to believe someone had lived there in the last few years let alone recently. Just before I left the house, I spotted some paintings that turned out to be by Sarah Purser and later sold at auction. If I hadn’t spotted them, they would have gone to landfill and been lost forever.
I probably always wanted to be a museum curator, so I am immensely proud of the Summer Loan Shows of art loaned from private collections that I arrange at Adam’s. Among the best were A Celebration of Irish Art and Modernism in 2011, and Gerard Dillon: Art and Friendships – which was curated by my wife, Karen – in 2013. Events like this show Adam’s commitment to giving something back to the art world.
What do you personally collect?
Karen and I have very eclectic tastes and collect all sorts of things. In art, our period would be 1940-1970, whether wood engraving, monotype, watercolour or oil. I am very interested in the Irish Arts and Craft movement and among my purchases last year was a Celtic Revival brass inkwell and pen stand made by “Austin of Dublin”, which I bought privately; and a Celtic Revival silver cream jug and sugar bowl that I bought at Adam’s.
Each purchase cost less than €150 - so collecting need not be expensive. After reading a book about the sculptor Oisín Kelly last year I would love to acquire a piece of pottery decorated by him at the Terrybaun Pottery in Co Mayo, but I have never seen one for sale. One of my favourite chairs is a provincial Windsor armchair, whose right arm is worn through from the previous owner resting his right hand on it. Simple Irish provincial furniture is collectible and has an interesting history but is often, sadly, thrown out.
What would you buy if money were no object?
I wouldn’t necessarily buy something, but instead create a living work of art: a great garden. I admire what Fred Krehbiel did at Ballyfin (the hotel in Co Laois) where he not only restored a great house and re-created a garden but filled it full of treasures; a great act of philanthropy. Karen is always terrified I will go off and do something similar but on a much smaller scale, naturally, and fill it full of paintings. I have always loved our much-undervalued architecture .
What is your favourite work of art?
What I am going to choose is not essentially a work of art in the true definition of the word. I remember once trudging around the great galleries of Paris and, after a while, one picture blended into the next but what gave me most pleasure was to then come across the garden at the Rodin Museum. I still remember it vividly, 30 years later. I have the brochure somewhere and dream that some day I could recreate it in some form. To my mind, gardens are living works of art.
In conversation with Michael Parsons