Life’s Work: Morgan O’Driscoll, art auctioneer, Co Cork
‘The idea of art as a career never entered my head until a school trip to France when 15’
Morgan O’Driscoll: “When I was 15, we went to the Louvre, an experience I found mindblowing. I was totally overwhelmed, not just by the beauty, but the power of the things that we saw.”
Morgan O’Driscoll Auctioneers was founded in 1994 and holds regular salesroom and online auctions of art, antiques and collectibles at the salesroom in Skibbereen, Co Cork, and also holds “Irish and International Art” auctions in Dublin twice a year.
What’s your background?
I grew up in Skibbereen where my family were in retail. I attended De la Salle School in Skibbereen and then Castleknock College in Dublin before studying auctioneering and estate agency at the Dublin Institute of Technology. I took my degree, a bachelor of science in
valuations and estate management, at the University of Greenwich in London in 1992 and am a member of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland. My main area of interest is modern and contemporary painting and sculpture; I’d say my expertise lies in valuations, estate management and marketing. It’s one thing to be able to recognise and appreciate the value of a piece of art, quite another to know the best way to market it.
How did you get into the business?
Art and antiques were always on my radar. My parents collected art in a small way, and I had an uncle who held antique auctions in Kinsale, but the idea of art as a career never entered my head until a school trip to France when I was 15.We went to the Louvre, an experience I found mindblowing. I was totally overwhelmed, not just by the beauty, but the power of the things that we saw. A few years later, I went to help out my uncle, Denis Sheehy, with one of his auctions. He was an auctioneer in Kinsale but has since retired. I thought I’d just be a kind of dogsbody, shifting things around, but he had other ideas. He put the gavel in my hand, told me to get on with it, and the next minute the auction was under way. The sheer thrill – and the unexpected enjoyment – melted away my nerves. That was when I knew what I wanted to do. In 1994, I opened my own fine art auction house.
What advice would you give collectors/investors?
Buy what gives you pleasure. When you find an artist you like, research, research, research; learn everything you can about him/her – which are the early (possibly immature) works, which the acknowledged “best” periods. Even great artists have bad patches, and many are hugely prolific. When they die, the entire contents of their studio may go to market. That will include works painted at the pinnacle of the artist’s powers – but also paintings the artist consigned to the back of the studio, deeming them not worthy enough to sell. Visit galleries, exhibitions, and invest in a library of the best reference books – the downside of the internet is that a Google search can throw up wildly inaccurate information. If you are buying for investment, beware the lure of the “sell-out” exhibition – it’s no guarantee for the future. Trends and fashions are fickle.
If you are building a collection, keep an eye on auction results which are an excellent guide as to whether it’s a good or bad time to buy or sell a particular artist.
I think contemporary Irish art is undervalued at the moment – artists like Louis le Brocquy, John Shinnors and Tony O’Malley. Their prices went up during the boom and then down – with a bang afterwards.
Career highlights? In late November last year
, the catalogue for my December sale had just gone to press when a collector telephoned wanting to consign a painting. I told him it was much too late but he was insistent. What is it? I asked.
He replied with the words every Irish auctioneer hopes to hear, “An oil painting by Jack B Yeats.”
I dropped everything, got in the car, made the 800km round trip to his home and arrived back in Skibbereen with Jack B Yeats’s beautiful painting Business. It made €210,000, the second-best price for an Irish work of art in 2015.
Going further back, a real eureka moment was when, observing how my younger brother and sister use IT, the potential of the internet as a marketing tool dawned on me. We were the first in Ireland to have online auctions. Before the internet, bidders were almost all Irish; today, our auctions attract collectors from 30-plus countries and the list gets longer every year.
Innovations that have helped sales growth include in-depth online viewing – our website allows viewers to see magnification of the image, close-ups of the signature, the back of the painting, how it looks in a room setting and 360-degree viewings of sculptures. Clients can now get a lot more information from the website than from a printed catalogue.
What do you personally collect?
My taste has changed over the years. Probably influenced by my parents, I have a love of the traditional Irish landscape., I’m always on the lookout for a nice Maurice Wilks painting , or one of Gerard Dillon’s early west of Ireland pictures. But I also love Donald Teskey’s seascapes, John Shinnors’s enigmas, and the incomparable Hughie O’Donoghue.
What would you buy if money were no object?
A painting by Sean Scully, something by Vasarely, anything by Monet. Scully’s work can be really profound, Vasarely invigorates, and Monet is magical.
What’s your favourite work of art and why?
The Chrysler Building in New York. It dazzled me when I first saw it in 1991. It’s an emblem of the best of the 20th century. A great start to the day is waking up in Manhattan with a view of it from your hotel room.