By Ray O’Hanlon
A forgotten and virtually unknown painting by famed Irish artist Jack Butler Yeats has turned up in New Jersey. The painting, known as “The Coachman,” is believed to have been purchased directly from the artist and brother of poet W.B. Yeats almost a century ago.
It’s new, and temporary, owner is Sean Crean, owner of the Celtic Art gallery in Long Island City, Queens.
The Yeats work, in the tempera oil technique, is now heading for auction in Toronto and a likely price tag of somewhere between US$250,000-$500,000.
“These kind of paintings don’t turn up very often. The Irish market is very buoyant and an exact final sale price is hard to predict,” Valerie Brown of Waddington’s auctioneers in Toronto said. “But you can’t be over optimistic when you’re talking about a painting like this. It’s been hidden from public view for close to a 100 years. It’s very exciting.”
Crean, meanwhile, will be breathing easier if Waddington’s sells the painting at even the lower end of the likely estimate. His budget had to be suddenly stretched with the help of the bank when he realized he had come across an Irish treasure in the Garden State.
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Crean, a native of Roscommon, was scanning auction notices in an antiques publication when he noticed a sale in Stewartsville, a small town in New Jersey close to the Pennsylvania line.
“There was a brief mention of a work by another Irish artist, Erskine Nicol. It didn’t mention the Yeats painting,” Crean said.
It was only when Crean called the auctioneers in Stewartsville that he was told of the Yeats.
Crean had a first look at the work when an illustration was e-mailed to him. But time was short. The sale was coming up and details of the work’s origin and provenance were scarce.
“So I drove down and took a look myself. ‘The Coachman’ was mixed in with a lot of other paintings,” Crean said.
Knowing he had come across a work of considerable interest and importance, Crean drove back to Stewartsville for the sale.
“I started bidding against a couple of other bidders who were on the phone. I was about to stop when the crowd in the room started roaring at me to go on,” Crean said.
And Crean did just that. “The bidders on the phone eventually chickened out,” he said.
Crean’s winning bid was $165,000, a sum, he said, that came in a hastily arranged bank loan.
Crean is a good bet for a bank, however, and certainly seems to have a nose for elusive ephemera.
A couple of years ago he just happened to come across an original copy of the 1916 Proclamation while visiting Ireland.
Experts believe there are only 17 such copies in existence, so discovering an unclaimed, or unrecognized, copy was quite a coup.
In the case of “The Coachman,” Crean immediately went to work researching its story after his successful bid.
“It was owned by a family named Otis and apparently purchased directly from Yeats by a Mrs. Otis during a visit to Ireland in 1915. It remained in her family home until she died recently at age 102.
“The painting was never touched,” Crean said. “It never left the house, is in its original frame and in perfect condition. It is indeed a discovery. I first thought it was pastel, but it turns out that it’s tempera.”
Tempera is a more durable technique in which a mixture of water and pure egg yolk, or egg yolk and oil, is used by the artist as a binder. The result is a rapid drying rate on the canvas.
“The Coachman,” appropriately enough, is on the road again this week, heading for Canada, where it will join two other works by J.B. Yeats on the block on May 23.
The Waddington’s auction will be that company’s first Irish sale in Canada.
The other Yeats works on sale will be “From Portacloy to Rathlin O’Beirne,” an island scene in the west of Ireland painted by the artist in 1932, and “The Street Performer,” a Dublin scene in oil dating from 1947 and one that looks back to an earlier watercolor painted in 1899.
Waddington’s believes that the Portacloy painting could fetch in excess of a million Canadian dollars while the Street Performer should attract a price close to Can$400,000.
The top price ever paid for a Yeats work, according to Sean Crean, was _1.18 million sterling at Sotheby’s in London.
Valerie Brown of Waddington’s said that US$1 million would not be beyond the bounds of possibility for “The Coachman,” given the present nature of the market and the level of interest in Irish works.
Other items in the Toronto Irish sale include a signed letter by Oscar Wilde, a signed copy of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and a collection of antique Guinness posters.