Auction rooms: great sales from the centuries

Forget flatpack – savvy punters know the place to go furniture-shopping is the auction room, where good-quality, handmade pieces can be found at knockdown prices


A smart place to head when furnishing a house can be the auction room, where good quality handmade furniture that was built to last can be sourced at great prices. As well as being trend proof, they add texture to a home and will withstand the test of time that modern furniture in a similar price bracket won’t.

Cork man Aidan Foley runs auctions along the west coast – Doneraile in Co Cork, Sixmilebridge in Co Clare, and Kilcolgan in Co Galway, about eight times a year and was bitten by the auction bug more than 20 years ago

“I was in the supermarket trade selling sliced pans for 19 pence. I happened upon an auction in Limerick and bought the last lot – a mixed box of watches for a fiver as I needed a new strap. A friend offered me £500 for one of the watches later in the week.”

It transpired the watches were in the drawer of a dresser which was being sold and were thrown into a box to be sold as a different lot. Foley was hooked, gave up the supermarket and turned his hand to dealing antiques. His knowledge comes from his “pocket coupled with a few expensive lessons”.
At a recent auction held at the Ranch in Kilcolgan, Co Galway, inside a shed the size of an airport hangar stuffed to the brim, was a mixed bunch of items for sale ranging from old treadmills, ephemera, antlers and church bells to a substantial range of old furniture including a tiny Killarney wood table with an estimate value of €5,000-€7,000 (which later sold for €4,700). Our mission was to find decent old furniture, which having endured one century might make it through the next.

The scene in the shed was jovial, as children tested old drums and a punch bag while Foley and his sidekick competed with the clatter of howling wind and hail on the Perspex roof. The crowd was an eclectic bunch and ranged from dealers, collectors and bargain hunters to interested onlookers.

Getting the deals
Horologist and chair restorer Nigel Barnes, co-author of Maintaining Long Case Clocks , originally from the UK but living in Clare, is a regular on the circuit and has spotted two treasures, one of which is an Edwardian clock which he buys at €140 and estimates its value to be nearer €1,000.

Barnes is adamant that deals are to be had at country auctions. “It’s like this,” he says in a hushed tone, “the big auction houses in Dublin have an expert in every category and know the rare and valuable pieces, but in the country where it’s a one-man show, he can’t have the same extent of knowledge.”

The dealers and collectors here are in agreement that now is the time to purchase “brown furniture” as it’s called in the trade. It appears the tiger cubs are flogging the upmarket pieces they purchased a decade ago, and oversized reasonable pieces either don’t fit in modern homes or flat-pack disposables are more on trend. According to Foley, Irish and UK dealers are buying up good antiques here and shipping them to the UK to sell to the Australian and Canadian market.

As we move around the room following the pointer (a young lad from Clifden with a stick to indicate the current lot), I get a wallop on the shoulder from Nigel Barnes. In a reflex moment I shoot my hand up to raise the current bid of €460 on a Georgian Nelson sideboard. The hammer drops; it’s ours for €480 (plus the 20 per cent buyer’s fee).

A valuation when the piece later arrives in Dublin puts a current market price of €1,500 on the sideboard.

Two days later, Adams in Dublin is having its Attic Sale, which salesroom manager Kieran O’Boyle describes as its annual spring clean, offering items that didn’t sell last year. “People realise that these are once-off pieces and antiques are making a comeback, especially in smaller sized furniture.” This is not the usual Adams high-end affair “There are almost no reserves,” says O’Boyle. “Lots are sold to the highest price on the day.”

The scene is quite a contrast to the lively setting in the Kilcolgan shed as dealers and deadpan collectors sit in rows in the warm room overlooking St Stephens Green.

Great value
Initially dubious after seeing the estimates, which seemed very low, there was good value – 85 per cent of the 300 lots of paintings and antiques were sold and few reached their estimate. A Brian Ballard oil painting, with an estimate of €800-€1,200 sold for €570 and a William IV Rosewood breakfast table with an estimate of €400-€600 went for €320. About 50 per cent of the lots sold were by commissioned bids, where the bidder doesn’t attend the auction in person.

The piece we were interested in was a huge contemporary Italian mahogany cabinet, which was so heavy it took four men to lift. Unfortunately, it happened to attract the eye of other buyers but the hammer dropped in our favour at €550 (plus buyer’s fee of 24 per cent); well over the estimate of €150-€250.

A day at an auction is both tiring and exciting for any bargain hunter. There is definitely value to be found on these unique items in the current market, if you can last the pace.

Apart from a piece of furniture, it’s also a little piece of history which should remain for future generations to enjoy. And you never know, you just might pick up that bargain that evaded the auctioneer’s eye.

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