Cash-strapped Bank of Ireland sells off its art

Bank of Ireland has raised €1.5 million ($2 million) in a sale of its prized Irish art works, auctioneers said Thursday, but the money won't be used to shore up the troubled lender amid the country's economic gloom.

Adam's auction house said 144 works sold Wednesday night, when more than 500 people packed into the glitzy ballroom of Dublin's Shelbourne Hotel, hours after the government announced the toughest budget cuts in the country's history.

The event highlighted the resiliency and quirkiness of Ireland, where for decades wealth was kept hidden under the mattress — and where savers once again are seeking a haven safer than the country's crippled banks.

It also provided a lightning rod for people disgusted by how Ireland's banks brought the country to ruin, are on course to receive billions more from an international loan, yet cling to their own staggering private wealth.

"The banks have mismanaged everything for the last 12 years. Why should we now entrust them with this collection?" asked Gemma Mastroianni Carroll, a former Wall Street banker who was among about 20 protesters outside the sale.

"These are valuable assets for our future. The banks will default, and they will leave this country with absolutely nothing," she said.

Bank of Ireland decided to auction off its art stockpile after facing criticism over its multi-billion-euro (dollar) bailout and its increasing reliance on taxpayers' goodwill. The bank is donating the money to local charities rather than to cover its debt liabilities.

Some critics argued the bank should be donating its entire 2,000-piece collection to the nation, so the works all would remain in Ireland. Some of Wednesday's winning bidders came from countries ranging from the United States to Japan.

But many bidders said they were relieved that Bank of Ireland mounted the auction — and that anybody showed up.

Christopher McGirl, a 53-year-old collector who traveled from Amsterdam to his native Ireland for the auction, was amazed that interest was so high at a time of austerity.

"The timing is absolutely unbelievable," McGirl said, browsing the sale catalog on an Apple iPad. "But even after the measures announced today, even after people have seen their investments in the bank's share almost wiped out, the room is absolutely packed."

The auction house was forced to switch the sale to the neighboring hotel because of the high public interest. It's now examining the bank's remaining works for potential future sales. Ireland's five other Irish banks — all but one of them nationalized or heading that direction as state bailouts grow ever larger — are considering the sale of their own art collections.

The landscape "Clouds at Sunset," a 1911 study of Killary Harbor in western Ireland by Northern Irish artist Paul Henry, attracted the highest bid — €66,000 ($88,000).

The auctioneer, James O'Halloran, noted that the prices reached Wednesday generally paled in comparison to the freewheeling bidding experienced in the final, heady days of Ireland's Celtic Tiger boom, just three years ago.

"Some works made more than you possibly would have expected at the very height of the market. But there were definitely many other lots that reflected the overall state of the market," he said.

O'Halloran said William John Leech's still life oil painting "Marguerites," which sold for €17,000 ($22,600), "could have sold for two or three times that price" in the recent past.

"Partly it's that tastes have adjusted over the last few years, but the speculators have also gone. It means we have a much more genuine art market now," he said.



Adam's auction house:

(This version corrects photo captions.) )