Irish Art in London is the Prey of the Celtic Tiger

Three contemporary Irish painters gathered in London for an exhibition at the John Martin Gallery during spring sales week. Pat Harris offered subtle pieces that stood in contrast to John Shinnor’s large-scale, bold works and Seán McSweeney’s abstract landscapes. The majority of pieces in the exhibition sold on opening night of the show.

By Turlough McConnell, VP of Marketing
August / September 2007

The London art world was taken by surprise at its annual auctions this spring when the Irish rich, clamoring for Irish art, replaced the usual art buyers. Even the experts were impressed.

Grant Ford, director of Sotheby’s contemporary art worldwide, said: “Perhaps the biggest difference was the influx of new wealth from moguls of the Celtic Tiger – they have jumped into the auction game and pushed record prices like never before.”

“It’s astonishing,” said Elizabeth Martin, owner of Elizabeth Martin Fine Art. “A few years ago it would have been unthinkable that Irish art would raise millions in a week.”

Elizabeth and her colleague Ellen O’Donnell Rankin led a group of American art collectors through London’s finest galleries, art studios, auction houses and museums. The group took in the public collections of the National Gallery, went on private tours of the Irish art previews and attended sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

“The new Irish art enthusiasts have completely changed the market,” Ms. Martin continues. “They live in Ireland and have easy access to the art. Many come over, and still others see paintings at previews hosted by the auction houses in Ireland before the London sales week.”

Christie’s and Sotheby’s held major Irish art sales on consecutive days.  Other notable auction houses, James Adam of Dublin and Bonham’s of London, coordinated a joint sale in Dublin later in the month.

At Sotheby’s, the sale of 111 works by Irish artists fetched over $12 million. The top lot in the London sale, a painting by Belfast-born artist Sir John Lavery, sold to an Irish buyer for about $1,500,000 – almost double the initial estimate.

The work of several contemporary artists, including Seán Scully, John Noel Smith, Robert Ballagh and Louis le Brocquy, also sold. Mr. le Brocquy’s oil portrait, Image of Samuel Beckett, sold for almost $800,000 significantly higher than anticipated.

“We experienced a big jump in the number of new buyers from Dublin,” said Ford. “With 164 great Irish works available, this was our biggest auction in the twelve years we have been presenting the Irish sale.” ♦

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