Life’s Work: Joan Murray, antiques fairs organiser, Dublin
‘We missed a ferry to Nicaragua – which was lucky as that evening we heard that the Sandinista revolution had started’
Joan Murray: “The very first fair I ran in the Mansion House was at the beginning of December and it snowed. I thought it was going to be a disaster, but we got a huge turnout.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Joan Murray runs Antiques Fairs Ireland and organises antiques and vintage fairs in Dublin and throughout Leinster. She established the company in 1989 and arranges about 20 fairs a year. The main venues are the Royal Marine Hotel in Dún Laoghaire and Clontarf Castle Hotel. Some 30 to 40 traders regularly participate in the fairs.
What’s your background?
Having studied Spanish and German at Trinity College Dublin, I got the travel bug and, immediately on graduation in the late 1970s set off with my boyfriend to explore North and Central America for a few years – working for a time and then hitchhiking the length of the continent from Canada to Guatemala. We worked in Toronto and then hitched to Seattle on the US west coast and then decided to hitch right down to the tip of South America. But, while in Guatemala in Central America, our journey was disrupted. We missed a ferry to Nicaragua – which was lucky as later that evening we heard that the Sandinista revolution had started and foreigners were being shot. So my journey further south was cut short and, after spending some time in the highlands of Guatemala, we returned to Ireland. On my return, I tried my hand at various jobs and eventually ended up managing a pub – the Pembroke (now Matt the Thresher) in Dublin.
How did you get into the business and why?
While working in the Pembroke, where I became manager, I often went to viewings at the famous Allen & Townsend auctions in the Mansion House during my long (remember the “Holy Hour”?) lunch break, and got hooked. I also attended some of the antiques fairs held in the Mansion House, helping a friend out, and doing a bit of trading myself – my own area of interest was costume jewellery, which was not really appreciated in Ireland of the 1980s, but now of course is a highly regarded area for collecting and investing.
It started out as a hobby, going to auctions and fairs with a friend. The fairs were all pretty low-key, so I decided to try and see if I could do better. I can still remember, the very first fair I ran in the Mansion House was at the beginning of December and it snowed. I thought it was going to be a disaster, but we got a huge turnout, and from then on, there was no going back.
I am most proud of having kept the fairs going throughout the tough times and have succeeded in reaching out to the next generation. I have succeeded in encouraging younger people to take an interest, which is obviously essential for the future of the antiques trade and the fairs.
The business survived the crash and the previous recessions during the past 30 years. My all-time favourite venue was the old Round Room of the Mansion House. Although badly maintained, it was a lovely bright room with small skylights and shields of the four provinces in the domed ceiling, and a beautiful, if neglected, parquet floor, which was unique as it was laid out as a maze. It closed down overnight as the structure was found to be unstable and likely to collapse at any moment. There have been lots of ups and downs in the antiques trade, and I think everyone will admit that times have changed and we are in a period of transition. It is obvious that the billionaire end of the art and antiques market is stronger than ever and impervious to changes in fashion. But the last few years have been very tough in the antiques business. It’s improving now. I was the first person in Ireland to promote “vintage” and to re-brand fairs as Antiques and Vintage Fairs – which everyone has since copied.
What advice would you give collectors/investors?
I believe in buying things that you can actually use as long as you don’t over-pay. Good quality antique jewellery is always a solid investment. So is vintage jewellery; if you buy quality pieces by the great 20th-century designers of costume jewellery – for example, the Americans, Miriam Haskell and Robert Trifari or the Italian, Schiaparelli – they will hold and increase their value . You don’t need to spend a lot and it’s a great way to start collecting. Young people today are looking for practical things that they can use and experience – not to put on display in a china cabinet. Also, I’d say vintage furniture is better-made – and is better value – than modern, new furniture in the shops. People look for small pieces of light, well-made furniture – especially Scandinavian 20th-century design,
What do you personally collect?
I buy vintage fashion and vintage jewellery – to wear.
What would you buy if money were no object?
I love living in Dublin. If I had tons of money I would love a penthouse in the centre of Dublin with a massive south-facing balcony and loads of bookshelves. I’d go to Iran to buy some hand-made Persian rugs to put on the floors.
What’s your favourite work of art and why?
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (also called The Lady in Gold) by the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt [at the Neue Galerie in New York]. Because it is just breathtakingly rich and beautiful. It reminds me of a Russian icon decorated with gold and jewels. I’ve only seen it in illustrations but hope, some day, to go to New York to see it.
Facebook.com/vintageireland or contact via firstname.lastname@example.org
In conversation with Michael Parsons