In the hot July of 1887, it was a world which saw the Marquess of Salisbury, the Prime Minister of England, Arthur Balfour, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, and a reclusive Queen Victoria at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight celebrating her jubilee. In The Irish Times on the 25th of July of that year, an advertisement appeared stating that Mr. James Adam (late of Messrs. Arthur Jones & Sons) “desires to announce that he has commenced business as Auctioneer, Valuer, Insurance and House Property and General Agent at 17, Merrion Row”. He goes on to say that he is greatly encouraged by influential promises of support in recognition of the experience, capacity, and fidelity which he invariably brought to the advancement and discharge of business. This was to prove true, his advancement was phenomenal in establishing the firm which still flourishes under its founder’s principles. James Adam, the firm’s founder, was born in Scotland in 1849. Bearing a distinguished Scottish name, he was like some of his namesakes before him, destined for success. He came to Ireland and took up an apprenticeship with Arthur Jones and Sons of 135, St. Stephen’s Green. Messrs. Jones & Sons were Auctioneers, Valuers, House, and Land Agents and also well-known House Furnishers, Cabinet Makers, Carpet and Chintz Merchants, and even Undertakers, the idea of complete client service is apparently not new.
The firm of Jones made notable contributions to the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. Several ambitious pieces of their carved bog oak or yew wood are illustrated in the catalog for the Exhibition, also Killarney ware – an Irish form of marquetry based on arbutus and other native timbers – was produced as tables, davenport desks and smaller items such as stationery and writing boxes and trays. The bright young James Adam progressed on the valuation and auctioneering side of the successful Jones firm. Eventually, in 1887, he decided to establish his own business. At this time he is recorded as living with his family at 136, St. Stephen’s Green. His new business prospered and his “experience, capacity and fidelity” became widely know and sought after. His offices were at 17, Merrion Row, where the firm remained until 1968 when the spacious premises at the corner of St.Stephen’s Green and Kildare Street were acquired and renovated to accommodate all of the business under one roof. From the early days, there was a specialization in sales of fine art, period furniture, books, porcelain, etc. Interesting early sales are recorded and catalogs survive of sales of orchids, perambulators and even old army boots (at the end of the First World War). All these show a remarkable variety of interests, apart from fine art. The “regular sales”, usually held on premises, gathered momentum and included coins, medals, old silver, plate, and jewelry, painted fans, work in artists’ studios and the contents of large houses. The valuation side of the business also expanded. Elizabeth Bowen, in her History of the Shelbourne Hotel records that Mr. James Adam prepared an inventory and valuation of the contents of the hotel in the late 1880s. In the 1980s the contents of Aras an Uachtarain and the residence of the Ambassador of the United States of America had been added to the distinguished list. By the 1890s it was obvious that a permanent salerooms was required and James Adam expanded and took a lease of 19, St. Stephen’s Green for a term of one hundred and fifty years at an annual rent of £99, inclusive. Here, in a spacious premises, formerly a perambulator shop, he established a Fine Art Salerooms which supplied fine period furniture etc. to Dublin’s increasingly prosperous business and professional classes. The firm remained there until the amalgamation of premises at 26, St. Stephen’s Green in 1968.
By the turn of the century James Adam was a distinguished and substantial citizen of Dublin. In the interesting Contemporary Biographies edited by W .T. Pyke and published in 1908, which also describes properties in the city and environs, he is noted as “son of the late John Adam of Paisley, Scotland.” He was, in fact, born at Johnstone on 3rd July 1849 and was then (1908) living at Orwell Bank, Orwell Park, Rathgar. James Adam died in 1932, followed by his son in 1934, leaving his grandson, Jim to carry on the business. Over the years, apart from the successful salerooms where regular auction sales were held, a series of important contents sales on premises were conducted. Such interesting collections as those at Killiney Castle; Dunadea Castle; St. Mary’s Abbey and Cabra Castle Co. Cavan, were dispersed. Crowded attendances were reported and “enormous prices” in their day such as £33 for a pair of George II carved giltwood mirrors, £60 for a pair of painted satinwood tables and £95 for a silver salver, Dublin, 1788, made headlines. With continued specialization, the firm introduced Irish art sales in the early 1970s. Previously, paintings by Irish artists had been included inregular sales of fine art, period furniture etc. and were little regarded. Whether financial appreciation or sentiment sent the price of Yeats’ A Palace soaring in December 1973, it was the commencement of a great purchasing spiral based to a large extent on investment. The work of other Irish artists of quality was soon to follow. This trend was itself following a dramatic increase internationally in the value of period furniture, silver, porcelain and almost everything with quality and age to recommend it. This came as a result, to a great extent, of expansion of the English auction houses worldwide, with the resultant promotion and increase in the sale of art. Traditional forms of investment were less popular due to the oil crisis. Increased activity on the part of well-endowed museums, particularly in the United States, coincided with increased private collector and investment interest. At the start of the investment purchasing spiral it was the well known painters whose works most purchasers were seeking. Curiously enough, there had always been recognition and fair value paid for some Irish artists, particularly those of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, such as William Ashford and the Roberts. Perhaps because the work of these artists was more international and immediately appealed to the then current taste for Neo-Classical and Romantic works, they succeeded and sold. Irish landscapes, both Classical and Modern, were familiar to purchasers by the early twentieth century. Taste in paintings in the nineteenth century veered towards the genre and the romantic, with scenes of good children, dogs and deer at bay becoming the rage. Graphic art also developed and fine engravings, lithographs etc. were produced from popular works at a fraction of the cost of the originals.
A distinctive modern Irish School began to emerge towards the end of the nineteenth century. The great portrait painters, such as Sir John Lavery and Sir William Orpen, who catered for the wealthy and fashionable, also painted landscape and other subjects. Another post-impressionist group included Walter Frederick Osborne and Nathaniel Hone. As a result, an Irish taste for Irish landscapes and figurative subjects in particular developed among a new generation of buyers. In the post rebellion period of the 1920s a new society sought roots and reassurance in the beauty of the Irish landscape and heroic portraits. Such artists as Paul Henry, William Conor, Patrick Tuohy, James Sleator, James Humbert Craig and Frank McKelvey worked for comparatively poor returns at giving the public what they wanted between the Wars. Some of this work was good, some only mediocre and some brilliant. Allied to the subject matter of these western landscape painters was the genius of the prolific Jack Butler Yeats in figurative and other studies recording events in the lives of West of Ireland, people and their great poverty and pride. In this field we also find Sean Keating, Sean O’Sullivan, Maurice MacGonigal, Charles Lamb and others recording traditional Irish customs, costume and people. Such work was not the best selling in its time but it now represents a very important part of our heritage and is increasingly appreciated and rising in value.
Irish artists became very busy and productive to satisfy the native market that emerged after the settling down of affairs of the new State in the early 1930’s. Nostalgia has formed a large part of the criteria of the new generation of buyers. Adventure into contemporary art in Ireland has been slower although it is now advancing at a more satisfactory level. The very recognizable fine styles of Walter Frederick Osborne, Yeats, Orpen, Lavery, Henry, McKelvey, Craig, Leech, Swanzy and, amongst the Post- Impressionists and modern painters, Roderic O’Conor and Louis le Brocquy need no introduction. Even those not particularly interested in art have seen reproductions of many of these works and are aware of the artists’ names. It is the works of the less well-known Irish artists, not so less talented in many cases, which has perhaps seen the greatest rise in real values over the past three decades. For instance Letitia Mary Hamilton and her sister Eva, Mildred Anne Butler (an almost unknown name thirty years ago), Rose Barton, Sarah Purser, Richard T. Moynan, Patrick Tuohy, Leo Whelan, Norah McGuinness, Nano Reid, James Malachy Kavanagh, Evie Hone, Mainie Jellett and others who are amongst a group of highly talented and interesting painters most of whom lived during the last hundred years. Early on, some had shown appeal above the ordinary and their values responded upwards accordingly. George Russell “AE”, with his romantic misty Irish land and seascapes, peopled by faery figures, and William Percy French, the most prolific of Irish bog landscape painters, are examples of those whose value now depends on quality. When paintings by some artists edge beyond the average buyer’s means, a new interest is taken in other artists, less well known and sometimes less prolific. Retrospective exhibitions and other promotions have brought to the attention of the public the talent of many who deserve to be better known. The splendid work of The National Gallery of Ireland in recent years in arranging exhibitions of Irish artists such as Orpen, Lavery, and Osborne has helped to increase public interest generally in Irish painters and stimulate potential buyers and investors. Taste is directed to a great extent by supply and value depends on both. The falling back of values of less-than-top quality works has had a healthy effect on a market which generally remains buoyant despite the current economic conditions. Values are nowadays more often based on merit rather than merely upon established reputations. Demand in Ireland has also expanded into contemporary art, albeit, as yet, mainly of a conservative nature. The average Irish collector or investor, whether corporate or private, remains cautious.
The problem for the smaller collector is that the recognition of the value of art as an investment has closed off much of the top quality to the less affluent. Many of the most successful “investors” in art over the past few decades were not purposefully investors at all. Prices were so keen up to about thirty years ago that one needed only to be acquisitive. Increased knowledge and promotion has led to shrewd informed buying and fast appreciation in value. Appreciation backed up by knowledge and an eye for quality are the real ingredients for success. The advancement in the quality of modern auction catalogs and knowledge including provenance has encouraged collectors and increased values.
Quality at all levels of art is now the only guarantee of value with potential for increase in the future. This is illustrated daily by reports of records being broken at sales for the works of outstanding artists. Artists, like politicians, who constantly change style or direction often tend to confuse their supporters and, unless particularly talented, lose popularity. It is true to say that investment in art, and Irish art in particular, has proved a very sound policy over the longer term. The increase in values over the last thirty years well outpaced inflation and although buyers are now more selective, there is no reason to believe that the purchase of good work by Irish artists or indeed of other artists should prove anything but a good decision.