William O'Reilly explains the enduring appeal of Impressionist and Modern Art to Lucinda Bredin
When you get a call like that, you assume it is going to be a copy or a print," says William O'Reilly, Bonhams Vice President and Director of Impressionist and Modern Art, US. "To see this incredibly rare work, as bright as the day it was made, still in its 1948 exhibition frame – and untouched – was beyond thrilling."
O'Reilly is talking about the nerve-tingling moment when he first saw Arbre de Neige (Snow Tree), one of Matisse's innovative cut-outs from 1947. "When the cut-outs were first exhibited, nobody knew what to make of them," says O'Reilly.
"But now people recognise that Matisse had invented a new art form, something that wasn't sculpture, wasn't painting, wasn't drawing, but was a combination of all three – and yet something in its own right at the same time." These extraordinary works were initially bought
by enlightened private collectors who recognised their ground-breaking qualities. Indeed works from the first group that Matisse made very rarely reappear on the market. "Perhaps only a handful have ever been at auction," says O'Reilly.
So when Bonhams offers Arbre de Neige, (see page 36), in May's Impressionist and Modern Sale in New York, it's bound to get the art press writing.
Last November, the undoubted star of O'Reilly's sale was Max Ernst's vibrant Tremblement de Terre Printanier. It had been consigned by a descendent of the artist's widow, Dorothea Tanning. This exceptional work from 1964 was a talking point at that auction because it was from a period of Ernst's work that has recently been re-evaluated.
O'Reilly explains: "It's a painting that shows how Ernst, who had been so visionary during the earlier part of his career, continued to strive for artistic invention until the very end of his life."
Bringing the Ernst and the Matisse paintings to market is an example of Bonhams' modus operandi. As O'Reilly says, "We find important and interesting works that we think collectors will get excited about. I always impress upon clients that Bonhams is not a modern art supermarket... we don't have 150 lots in a sale, we have 50, but they are 50 lots that we care about." According to William, "This bespoke service is something that we offer as a matter of course to consignors when they are entrusting their works to us. We spend time researching the work before we put it into a sale, often commissioning a world authority on the subject to write an essay. We then make a video of it, tour it to our major salerooms, talk to collectors about it. Finally, I stand up as the auctioneer and, with hope, bring down the hammer achieving a wonderful result, knowing that when I do, it will make a material difference to the lives of a number of people."
The Impressionist and Modern market is thriving at the moment. "The Contemporary market has been a great engine of growth," says O'Reilly, "but if you look at the boom year of 2015, the two highest prices were for a Modigliani and a Picasso. We have found that collectors who acquire in this field are doing so as a result of love and understanding rather than hype."
O'Reilly had a scenic route into the world of Impressionist and Modern art. Or, as he puts it, "non-traditional". He grew up in Wiltshire in a family that "had inherited the usual family pictures, English furniture and good carpets. My parents weren't collectors per se, but my father – who had been in the Navy – was regional chairman for National Trust, so I was brought up going to galleries, museums and country houses. Being surrounded by nice things has always been important."
After schooldays at Eton, O'Reilly went up to Cambridge to read Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. "I have always been passionate about Islamic Art. When I left Cambridge my first job in the art world was as an intern at Bonhams Knightsbridge with Claire Penhallurick, who was then Head of the Indian and Islamic Department. I think what attracted me towards Islamic Art in the first place was the purity and the quality of the line and the primacy of connoisseurship.
That, of course, holds true for the other fields I have worked in since."After training at Christie's, specialising in Old Master Drawings, O'Reilly transferred to Impressionist and Modern Art. He arrived at Bonhams in 2012 and moved to the New York saleroom as Director of the department, where he is now Vice President.
O'Reilly argues that his is an area of art that repays study. "You don't walk into an Impressionist and Modern Gallery and say, 'that painting matches the curtains, I'll buy it'. You look at it, you read the catalogue entry, you do research, you get drawn in...".
It is a lesson borne out by the increasing importance of the Chinese market. "The Chinese have a long tradition of connoisseurship and collecting. It is a culture that appreciates the well-made and the beautiful, things that have history and reflect human concerns. It's no surprise to me that Chinese collectors have become connoisseurs of Western works – in the same way that they have studied Chinese art since the Cultural Revolution." It's an approach to art that William O'Reilly would recognise himself.
Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.