Big House finally empties after auction


HOUSEHOLD STAFF, including liveried Indian “manservants”, stoically maintained a stiff upper lip yesterday as their way of life came to an end at Mount Congreve, Co Waterford. They watched quietly as the contents of the mansion were removed following a two-day auction. Apron-clad porters from Mealy’s auctioneers carried the goods to the car boots of the new gentry.

After 250 years of occupancy by the Anglo-Irish Congreve family, the Big House gradually emptied. During the second, and final, day of the sale yesterday, bidders from around the world competed via telephone and the internet with Irish auction-goers in the marquee saleroom for the hundreds of lots on offer.

Auctioneer Fonsie Mealy’s announcement that in addition to the hammer price, successful bidders had to pay a buyer’s premium of 25 per cent didn’t dampen enthusiasm.

The top lot was a mahogany Carlton House desk described as “Regency period – early 19th century” which sold for €82,000, which was within its estimate, to a telephone bidder. A pair of 18th-century French console tables sold for €55,000.

But there was disappointment when a mahogany cabinet once reputedly owned by French queen Marie-Antoinette was withdrawn from the auction. The ornate piece of furniture – inlaid with her monogram, the letters MA – had been expected to sell for up to €30,000. It was apparently sold to a private Irish collector for a considerably higher sum.

Chandeliers sold particularly well but the keenest bidding was on dozens of items of Oriental porcelain collected by the late Ambrose Congreve. Many sold for multiples of their estimates. Among many examples, a Chinese blue-and-white vase which had been “fitted for electricity” and used as a table lamp, sold for €50,000, despite a “hairline crack”. It had been expected to sell for between €8,000 and €12,000.

Numerous other lots also prompted gasps of disbelief. A frayed-looking Agra carpet, described in the catalogue as “with damage” sold for €37,000, which was more than 11 times its highest estimate.

Four left-over rolls of the “early hand-painted Chinese wallpaper” used to decorate the large drawing room sold for €7,000. The room’s cream and blue silk curtains sold for €12,500.

The renowned gentleman’s library in the house was broken up and the rare books sold off in lots. A copy of Isaac Ware’s 1738 translation of Palladio’s Architecture sold for €8,500. An album containing 32 Victorian Grand Tour photographs of ancient Egyptian sights made €7,000.

Among the large crowd at the sale was a “gentleman from Co Meath”, who didn’t wish to be named as his “wife doesn’t know”. He had travelled to buy some of the “equestrian-related items”.

The final lots in the auction included leather riding chaps, bone-handled boot pulls, a glove stretch and ivory and bone-back brushes.

A lost world, indeed.