Selling the family silver - again


Magnificent Leinster Dinner Service could fetch over €2 million at auction in London

THE EXPRESSION “selling the family silver” could have been coined for the Irish duke who did just that. And not just any old silver – but the fabulous plate that once adorned the dining table of Leinster House in Kildare Street. In 1918, Lord Edward FitzGerald, the 7th Duke of Leinster flogged off the family dinner-service – which he had inherited – to pay off gambling debts.

Now the famous Leinster Dinner Service has turned up again, this time in a London saleroom and is expected to sell for up to £2 million (€2.47 million) at a Christie’s auction next month.

The “magnificent” 18th century service comprises 70 dinner plates, 18 soup plates, 29 dishes, 22 dish covers, four candlesticks, 11 salvers, eight sauceboats and many other pieces including an elaborate epergne (table centrepiece). The entire lot has been assigned a pre-sale estimate of £1.5-€2 million (€1.85 million-€2.47 million) and is among the highlights of the auction, on July 5th, titled The Exceptional Sale which features “the very best European decorative arts”.

The auctioneers said “the Leinster Dinner Service is the grandest and the most complete surviving aristocratic service”. It was made by London royal goldsmith George Wickes in 1745-1746 for James FitzGerald, 20th Earl of Kildare, later 1st Duke of Leinster (1722-1773). The service, which contains over 5,000 ounces of silver, was an astonishingly lavish and extravagant purchase, and cost the family over £4,000 – a vast sum in 18th century Ireland.

Christie’s said “its cost far exceeded that of the Prince of Wales’ service and unlike so many it has remained almost intact”. It was used by successive Dukes of Leinster in the family’s two residences: their country seat, Carton House, Co Kildare; and Leinster House, their Dublin townhouse.

But the FitzGerald family’s fortunes gradually declined. Leinster House was sold – to the RDS for £10,000 – in 1815 and, over a century later, was acquired by the Irish State in 1924 to house the Dáil and Senate.

The silver passed down through the family but was eventually sold by the 7th Duke in 1918. He was living in London where he squandered his inheritance, lived in genteel poverty and acquired the nickname, “the bedsit duke”. He also sold Carton House to pay off gambling debts. Today it is a luxury hotel.

The Leinster Dinner Service was bought, first, by Sir Harry Mallaby-Deeley – a baronet, Conservative MP and property magnate; and, later, by Walter P. Chrysler Jr – the American heir to an automobile fortune and a well-known collector and philanthropist.

Where will the Leinster Dinner-Service end up next? Silver of this rarity and quality is likely to attract serious interest from collectors worldwide. Sadly, the current occupants of Leinster House have – like the gambling duke – run up the most appalling debts and are in no position to buy back the lost family silver.