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The acquisition kicked off a decade of collecting art from the Emerald Isle, with the couple securing works by luminaries like Jack B Yeats, Roderic O’Conor, Gerard Dillon and John Luke.

On September 11 in London, this assemblage, amounting to 16 oils in all, helped Sotheby’s (25/20/12.9% buyer’s premium) post its highest Irish art total since its relaunch of such sales three years ago. The dozen oils that sold contributed £1.13m, boosting the overall total to £2.14m.

The result bodes well for Sotheby’s and its much-publicised sale of 100 Irish works from the 40-year-old collection of another American couple, Brian and Eileen Burns, which goes under the hammer in November, valued at £3m-4.5m.

A shortage of quality material has been a major reason for rising prices at the upper end of the Irish art market. This was certainly evident in the Calihan collection, where the most eagerly contested works were those deemed particularly strong examples by Ireland’s leading painters.

Dillon record

An auction record was set for Belfast painter Gerard Dillon (1916-71). Lobster Pots, a 20in x 2ft (51 x 61cm) oil on board, was painted during the zenith of his career in 1951.

That year, Dillon had invited fellow artists George Campbell and James MacIntyre to stay with him on Inishlacken, off Roundstone, Connemara. The work at Sotheby’s, painted with characteristic naivety, is set in Roundstone harbour and shows Dillon and a friend bartering with a fisherman for the loan of lobster pots.

Guided at £60,000-80,000, it soared to £170,000, at which point it was knocked down to a private Irish collector. The price exceeds the £160,000 paid in the same rooms back in 2007 for a Roundstone-period self portrait.

Productive period

Another buoyant seller from the group was John Luke’s (1906-75)Pax, a miniature-like work dating from the early 1940s, a period of immense productivity for the painter.

The 12 x 15½in (30 x 39cm) work is the first of 12 small oil and tempera paintings made at Knappagh Farm in County Armagh, where the artist was living between 1943-48. Guided at £80,000-120,000, it sold to a private collector for £180,000, the second highest price for the artist at auction, according to the Art Sales Index. A painting from the same series titled Northern Rhythm sold at Sotheby’s Irish Art sale in 2017 for a premium-inclusive £187,500.

Yeats on top

As expected, the top lot of the sale was Sunday Evening in September by Jack B Yeats (1871-1957), a 14 x 18in (35 x 46cm) oil on board, painted in 1949 and showing a young couple taking a twilight stroll through St Stephen’s Green. It was one of the last pictures bought by the Calihans, acquired for £240,000 from Sotheby’s in 1999.

Back in the salerooms after a turbulent 19 years for the Irish market, it got away towards its bottom guide at £320,000 to a private UK collector.