Cataloguing the Irish ‘Big House’

Auction catalogues for house contents sales rise in value and are now collectable

A catalogue from 1950 for the sale of the contents of Shelton Abbey

A catalogue from 1950 for the sale of the contents of Shelton Abbey

Sat, Aug 16, 2014, 01:00

In summer 2012, more 13,000 people attended the viewing in Mount Congreve, Waterford where Mealy’s and Christie’s jointly hosted a sale of the contents of the historic house. Anyone who bought the catalogue, which cost €25, ought to hang on to it. It could prove to be a good, long-term investment. There’s a niche market for catalogues relating to the disposal of the contents of Ireland’s “Big Houses”.

Prices for the catalogues of some of the landmark auctions of the 20th century have now reached hundreds of euro and are likely to continue rising. The catalogues are important social and cultural documents and are especially useful for collectors and auctioneers to ascertain the provenance of items subsequently offered for resale. If, for example, you have a piece of furniture or silver which reputedly came out of, say, Ashford Castle or Mount Juliet, but don’t have any receipt – being able to point to the piece in a catalogue would greatly enhance its value and saleability. In fine art and antiques sales, “provenance” (the ability to prove the chronology of the ownership, custody or location of a historical object) is crucial.

Collectible catalogues occasionally turn up at auction. Last month Oliver Usher Auctioneers in Kells, Co Meath sold an inventory dated April 1911, of the contents of Dunsandle House, near Athenry, Co Galway, prepared by Bennett & Son, Auctioneers & Valuers, Ormond Quay, Dublin, sold for €1,700, almost six times the top estimate of €300.

Courtwood Books in Vicarstown, Stradbally, Co Laois is currently selling a catalogue for the clearance sale, in 1918, of the contents of Laurentum House, Clashmore, Co Waterford (€95) which included, intriguingly, the “preserved skin of a Boa Constrictor” (€95).

Galway-based antiquarian book dealer Norman Healy (healyrarebooks.com) is a specialist in this field and has a stock of scarce catalogues for sale. He said “probably the scarcest of all” is the catalogue for the sale of the contents of Ashford Castle, Cong, Co Mayo, which commenced on May 15th, 1939 and lasted a fortnight. The catalogue contains 80 pages and the joint auctioneers were Jackson, Stops & McCabe (Dublin) and Joyce, Mackie & Lougheed (Galway). A copy in good condition can sell for in excess of €600.

Valuable listings

Other scarce catalogues, which can fetch hundreds of euro, include those for the contents of Kilkenny Castle, for the Marquess of Ormonde, in 1935; Moore Abbey, Monasterevan, Co Kildare for Count John McCormack in 1937; Iveagh House, Dublin for the Earl of Iveagh (Guinness family), in 1939; Shelton Abbey, Arklow for the Earl of Wicklow, in 1950; Killeen Castle, Dunsany, Co Meath for the Earl of Fingall, in 1953; Dromoland Castle, Co Clare for Lord Inchiquin, in 1962.

The next “Big House” sale takes place on October 21st when Scottish fine art auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull sell the contents of Bantry House in Co Cork. The catalogue will be published next month.

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