The Times We Lived In: The £700 ‘sleeper’ rug

Published: July 8th, 1996. Photograph: Paddy Whelan

The rug being moved at the  furniture and fine art auction at Powerstown House, Clonee, Co Meath in 1996. Photograph: Paddy Whelan

The rug being moved at the furniture and fine art auction at Powerstown House, Clonee, Co Meath in 1996. Photograph: Paddy Whelan

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Country house. Rug. Two strapping young men. Anyone with a fanciful turn of mind might be tempted to speculate that there’s a body in the library, and that these chaps are heading towards it with the intention of rolling it up and spiriting it away from the eagle eyes of Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot.

At this column, needless to say, we would never suggest such a thing. Instead we take our lead from the photogaph’s original caption, which reads: “Porters Stephen Pattison, on left, and Gordon Standing, moving a Donegal rug by Dun Emer to the rostrum during the furniture and fine art auction at Powerstown House, Clonee, Co Meath, yesterday. The rug was expected to sell for £40/60 but went for £700.”

So this rug is what is known in the antiques trade as a “sleeper”, and not because cats and dogs and other assorted animals like to use it to snooze in front of the fire. It’s because come auction day, it soars above its estimate – well and truly waking everybody up.

Celtic designs

The Dun Emer Guild was at the heart of the Celtic Revival of the early 20th century. Set up by Evelyn Gleeson and the two Yeats sisters, Lily and Elizabeth, it was an arts co-operative which championed the use of Celtic designs for rugs, tapestries and embroidery.

Maybe this rug wasn’t considered cool enough for a late-1990s interiors scheme. (Although that acid-green foliage would – it seems to us – go just beautifully with a pine kitchen, some ivy wall decals and maybe a statement inflatable armchair.)

Anyhow, the market had the last laugh – and though they paid more than 10 times the upper estimate, somebody got the carpet they wanted. Dun Emer rugs can still cause surprises at auction. In 2016 a carpet with an estimate of €2,000 to €4,000 sold for €10,000 at Adam’s in Dublin.

These and other Irish Times images can be purchased from: irishtimes.com/photosales. A book, The Times We Lived In, with more than 100 photographs and commentary by Arminta Wallace, published by Irish Times Books, is available from irishtimes.com and from bookshops, priced at €19.99.

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