Auction highs, lows and no-shows of 2014

A look back at Antiques & Collectibles auctions in 2014 and some of the items that made the headlines


The year 2014 in Irish salerooms will be remembered for what might have been as the two most keenly anticipated auctions never actually happened. The announcement, in May, by Sheppard’s Irish Auction House of Durrow, Co Laois, that it planned to sell a collection of unpublished letters written by former US First Lady Jackie Kennedy to an Irish priest, Fr Joseph Leonard, attracted international interest. The letters had been consigned by All Hallow College – a former seminary in Dublin – and had been expected to sell for in excess of €1 million.

Extracts from the letters, published exclusively in The Irish Times, revealed, for the first time, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s private thoughts about her marriage to president John F Kennedy, their life in the White House and her reaction to his assassination. But, following a dispute about their ownership, the letters were withdrawn from sale, handed over to the late Fr Leonard’s Vincentian Order of Catholic priests, and returned to the Kennedy family. The new owner, assumed to be Caroline Kennedy (Jackie’s and JFK’s daughter and currently US Ambassador to Japan) has made no comment about her plans for the letters. Auctioneer Philip Sheppard, reflected ruefully on the cancelled auction: “the Jackie letters would have been the sale of the century”. Shortly after the auction was cancelled, All Hallows, a constituent college of Dublin City University announced its closure. The “curse of the Kennedys”?

By a twist of fate, the other expected highlight of the year – the sale of the contents of Bantry House in west Cork, scheduled for October, was also cancelled. Scottish fine art auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull had failed to get a licence to operate in Ireland. The Edinburgh firm claimed the auction had been postponed rather than cancelled but, no new auction date has been announced yet.

Meanwhile there were plenty of auctions that did proceed and thousands of antiques and collectibles went under the hammer.

Notable sales in Ireland

Another exciting find turned up in Co Wexford where Fr John O’Reilly, the parish priest of Piercestown consigned a “dusty old cabinet” found during a garage clearance to Sheppard’s auctioneers. It turned out to be a 15th Century Flemish altarpiece with a centrepiece featuring a sculpted frieze of the Lamentation of Christ and was sold – for €40,000 – with the proceeds going to benefit the parish.

Mystery still surrounds how the item originally came to Ireland. After the auction it was shipped, via Rosslare, back to Belgium, home of the successful bidder.

With just over a year to go until the centenary commemorations of the 1916 Rising, Whyte’s auctioneers sold newly-discovered letters written by a resident of Ailesbury Road in Dublin 4 which provided an eye-witness account of the Rising from an Anglo-Irish, Protestant perspective. Sir Alfred Irwin, who was gardening on that fateful Easter Monday afternoon, wrote that at 4.20 pm – a few hours after the Proclamation had been read at the GPO –“Emily Daly telephoned that the Sinn Feiners are up in town. Seized the Post Office & nearly shot Charlie”. The letters were bought by the National Library of Ireland for €2,100.Whyte’s also sold – to Dublin City Council for €3,800 – a newly discovered log kept in 1916 by the Dublin Fire Brigade’s Ambulance service which records the first casualties of the Rising. At Adam’s, an original copy of the 1916 Proclamation sold for €90,000 – failing to reach even its low estimate (€100,000) seven years after the same copy changed hands, also in an Adam’s auction, for €240,000.

At Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers, the 1955 All-Ireland Hurling Final medal won by Wexford’s Nickey Rackard one of the best-known GAA stars of mid-20th century Ireland – sold for €17,500. The medal had been given away by Rackard during his lifetime and was bought back by members of the family.

The Irish Antique Dealers Association (IADA) mourned the death of Paul Johnston – a “world expert on 18th- and 19th-century Irish furniture” – and announced the establishment of a bursary in his memory.

De Veres auctioneers announced it would no longer sell “antique ‘brown’ furniture” from 2015 because the value “has continued to drop” and would concentrate, instead on the antiques of the future: “20th century design and modern furniture”.

However, both Adam’s and Mealy’s said there was still demand for period pieces of the highest quality. The top antique furniture price of the year was achieved at Sheppard’s where a pair of French mahogany cabinets, signed by François Linke, sold for €135,000.

But the big “national” auctioneers didn’t always get the goodies. At Oliver Usher Auctioneers in Kells, Co Meath, there was applause during an evening auction when a French Lalique early 20th century crystal ‘Ram’s Head’ (‘Tête De Bélier’) car mascot tripled the estimate and sold for €4,700.

The Irish in London

Francis Harwood

At Bonhams, an archive of material relating to the work of writer and painter Christy Brown, best-known as the author of My Left Foot, sold for £37,500 (€44,733) and was purchased jointly by the National Library of Ireland and the Little Museum of Dublin; and a rare 17th Century, German ‘Kunstkammer’ table-top cabinet, which had originally been in Ballyfin House, Co Laois, made £482,500 (€578,600).

Christie’s raised £1,800,000 (€2,160,000) from the sale of the estate of the late David Collins, the London-based Irish interiors architect who died in 2013. A private Irish collector sold the “Arkle Collection” of memorabilia associated with Ireland’s most famous racehorse – which had been on public display in Co Kildare – at Graham Budd Auctions in Mayfair for £65,000 (€81,000).

Next week: Taking stock of the international and Irish art market

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