Life’s Work: Denis Lynes, antiques auctioneer, Cork

Train your eye before investing in antiques



Denis Lynes established Lynes & Lynes in Cork City in 1976 and has been holding regular auctions for the past 40 years – with sales approximately every six weeks at the auction rooms in Carrigtwohill.

What’s your background?

My father worked for the old Munster & Leinster Bank in Limerick – where I was born – but he was transferred to Cork when I was aged nine. After school with the Christian Brothers I started out working in the hotel and catering business and spent a few years in London working for a brewery company which had a chain of pubs. I was planning to come home and to buy a pub or restaurant. When I returned to Ireland I worked for a while for Acton’s Hotel in Kinsale and then The Old Bridge restaurant in Cork. But I realised that the catering business was not for me. I switched to auctioneering when I was in my 20s and haven’t looked back since.

How did you get into your business and why?

In the early 1970s, I developed an interest in antiques and started going to auctions. The first auction house I visited was Barry’s on Academy Street in Cork. Back then, they had these huge sales that lasted three days and included everything from Flatley dryers to fine antiques. As I started dabbling, the first major item I bought was a Collard and Collard square piano for £15. I remember it looked like a million pounds to me. I had nowhere to put it and I convinced my then girlfriend (now wife, Catherine) to keep it in her tiny flat.

I started an auctioneering business with an old friend whose father had an auctioneer’s license that he didn’t use. Our first auction was in the Country Club Hotel. It started at 7pm and went on to 2am. The Garda came in at one stage as they were suspicious we were organising late-night drinking. We learned to time our sales more efficiently after that. A few years later, my friend and partner decided to pursue a different career. I was hooked though. I loved that I was always handling unique and interesting items. It never gets boring.

I got my own license. The girlfriend who suffered the storage of a large piano in her small flat became my wife and business partner, so we called the company Lynes & Lynes. Our first auctions were organised around her days off from her job as a nurse but shortly after it became full-time for both of us.

Career highlights?

We have held auctions in some very interesting properties in the region. One that stands out from the early 1980s was at Dinis Cottage on the edge of the lake at the Muckross House estate in the National Park in Killarney. There was a strict limit on the number of vehicles that could enter the estate and we even had people arriving by boat across the lake. We had to finish early because there was no electricity.

In 1995, I sold a painting entitled Requiem Mass for Michael Collins by Sir John Lavery for £120,000. It was bought by a gallery in London for a private Irish collector whose name was not revealed and it hasn’t been seen in public since.

In 2005, I handled the sale of a collection of paintings owned by a Cork family and a View of Cork from Audley Place by John Butts made €700,000. It was bought by the McCarthy family of Cork and donated to the Crawford Gallery where it now hangs. More recently, I auctioned the contents of the Mercy Convent in Tralee, which was a 100 per cent sell-out.

What advice would you give collectors/investors?

Immerse yourself in the world of antiques and art. Go to as many auctions as you can to observe what is making high prices. Go to museums, stately homes; study the illustrations in good books. There is a reason one chest of drawers makes €200 and another fetches €30,000. Study the high price items for the features that make them special. Over time, this will train your eye and it will stand to you when you are making investments.

Recently, a lot of people have been talking about brown furniture going out of fashion. I think it’s only partly true. Certain brown items have gone down in price but the high quality pieces have not and, in my opinion, will not. For example, good quality early-Georgian pieces will always hold their own.

For people starting out as collectors, furniture and art are the obvious choices. But there are other areas worth exploring, such as books, maps, early prints and garden furniture. I would say good antique garden effects such as Georgian cast iron seats, 19th century garden furniture stamped by the Coalbrookdale Foundry, fountains, etc make good investments. But watch out for reproductions.

What do you personally collect and why?

Georgian furniture, more so if it is from Cork. I have come across Cork furniture a lot over the years doing business in Cork. There is little documentation about it but it tends to have identifiable features. Personally, I find it very attractive. I also have an interest in it because of its connection to the history of the city where I have spent most of my life.

I also have a collection of works by the Killarney artist Sean O’Connor. I bought from him when he had a studio in the Town Hall in Killarney. They don’t have a high monetary value but I get pleasure from the scenes he painted.

What would you buy if money were no object?

Time. Enough of it to tour the world’s best museums and stately homes at a leisurely pace, from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to the Golestan Palace in Tehran.

What’s your favourite work of art and why?

The incredible Titania’s Palace. Described as a doll house, it is actually a miniature palace. I was lucky enough to see it as a child in Dublin before it was sold out of the country. The story behind it – how it was commissioned for a child who wanted a home for the fairies in her garden – captured my imagination back then and my interest in the piece has never waned since. There are thousands of miniature works of art in it. It was bought at auction by Legoland and today it is on display in Denmark.


In conversation with Michael Parsons

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