His prices shot up during the decade-long ‘Celtic Tiger’ boom years but demand has been more selective since the financial crash of 2008. A colourful example that appeared at the Morgan O’Driscoll (20% buyer’s premium) online sale which closed on October 27 gave a good opportunity to assess the current state of the market.
Summer, a 2 x 3ft (61 x 91cm) signed oil on board, had previously sold at Bonhams in London in November 2006 for £95,000, the second-highest price for the artist at auction at the time.
It reappeared with a €70,000-100,000 estimate.
O’Neill (1920-74) was part of a group of mainly self-taught artists who formed the ‘Belfast Boys’ who were all represented by the Victor Waddington Gallery until its closure in the late 1950s.
The son of an electrician, he was born in Belfast and left school early, training as an electrician in the shipyards and also working as a housepainter. After taking life drawing classes at the Belfast College of Art, where he became friends with artist Gerard Dillon and began to work with fellow Belfast artist Sidney Smith, he first exhibited his works in a group show at the city’s Mol Gallery in 1943.
Visiting Paris in 1949, he became influenced by the works of Maurice de Vlaminck and Maurice Utrillo and started to develop his own related style using simplified forms and strong colours.
The example at O’Driscoll showed four women on a hill above a river and was a more unusual and complex work in terms of composition. The auction house’s catalogue suggested that the white walls and red roofs of the homes in the background, as well as the poplar trees on the hillside, implied the setting was probably France, while the style and handling of paint meant it probably dated from the 1960s when the artist had several exhibitions at the Dawson Gallery in Dublin.
After a good bidding competition at the online sale, it was sold for €125,000 (£113,635), the highest price for O’Neill since 2008. While the sum was up on the 2006 price in terms of sterling, it had actually fallen in euros due to the currency changes over the last 14 years. Even still, it was a notable result that will probably engender greater confidence in the O’Neill market.
Elsewhere at the sale, another work that provided a useful gauge of the state of the market was Jack Butler Yeats’ (1871-1957)A Hooker and a Nobbie, a small painting of two boats based on sketches he made as he travelled around Connemara in 1911.
The fact that the 9 x 14in (23 x 36cm) signed oil on board had sold twice at auction in the last eight years – for €31,000 at Adam’s in 2012 and then €40,000 at de Veres in 2015 – meant that the €70,000-100,000 estimate may have looked a bit punchy.
However, it managed to find a buyer on low estimate – again a good sign for the market and a decent sum in its own right for a Yeats of this size without figures.
Overall, the auction performed pretty well and the fact that the new government Covid-19 guidelines meant that the Co Cork saleroom was unable to hold its Dublin viewing scheduled for the weekend before the auction did not seem to dampen demand.
The top price of the sale came for a set of four Andy Warhol (1928-87) Muhammad Ali screenprints that took €210,000 (£190,910) against a €200,000-300,000 estimate.