Life’s work: John McGrane, Antique furniture dealer

“I eventually found the money hidden underneath my own bathroom’s shower tray”

John McGrane is the founder and owner of Delvin Farm Country Antiques in Gormanston, Co Meath. He will retire tomorrow  after 40 years in the business when his remaining stock is auctioned on the premises by Victor Mee Auctioneers. The firm specialised in sourcing and selling traditional Irish antique pine country furniture.

What’s your background?

I grew up on my family's 150-acre farm in Clogherhead, Co Louth. I was the second eldest of 15 children. I worked on the farm for about ten years after leaving school.

My background in farming prompted the local auctioneer, Aidan Robinson, to hire me to help with the burgeoning market in agricultural land after Ireland joined the EEC (European Economic Community – now the EU) in 1973.

I had left school without doing my Leaving Certificate but did a a social science diploma course with UCD that subsequently enabled me to attain my MIAVI (Member of the Irish Auctioneers Valuers Institute) and become the first formally qualified estate agent in Drogheda. Robinson's estate agency premises had a stock of furniture for sale that I initially paid little heed to – hoping to avoid being used as a furniture mover.

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Little did I realise that I would ultimately find myself lugging around furniture for the next couple of decades.

How did you get into the business?

Like many entrepreneurs, I got into antiques dealing by chance. I was made redundant from my estate agency job with Robinson’s due, I think, to my inability to bring in enough business to justify my relatively expensive salary in the auctioneering sector – about £15 a week.

The severance pay, my wife’s salary and the backing of an entrepreneur hoping to set up a casino enabled me to lease my own premises in Drogheda in 1975 in an old mineral works factory. It was the furniture, not the property sales, which generated better cash flow so I soon found myself importing 40-foot containers of stock from the UK. Then in 1978 I purchased a period farmhouse which became Delvin Farm Antique and Pine Galleries.

My wife, Bernadette, cried upon entering the dishevelled house but it would undergo dramatic reconstruction and redecorating over the years.

During the recession of the 1980s the business was mainly about exports. I began filling the containers coming from the UK with Irish furniture to be sold in the UK. I made the acquaintance of Graham Price through dealers in Brighton and Graham would become the initial conduit for selling the old Irish furniture that I sourced to the growing Irish diaspora in the United States.

Soon I was exporting several 40-foot containers of antique Irish pine directly to various wholesalers in the Australia, New Zealand and throughout the United States. Over the years my business has reflected the ups and downs of the Irish economy. When things began to improve in the 1990s the local market improved and we relied less on exports.

Career Highlights?

Making the acquaintance of Graham Price was particularly fortunate in turning the business into an export business just as the Irish economy slowed in the 1980s.

Many of the international buyers who came to Ireland stayed in the house and become our friends. My wife Bernadette and I would often act as tour guides – showing them places like the Boyne Valley and Newgrange.

Many of my best moments involve the various escapades I had while sourcing furniture. I would travel the country to buy furniture from various eccentric dealers, most of whom I would consider great friends. I enjoyed discovering good pieces of Irish country furniture that were often world-class quality. I loved loading the stock onto a stream of inadequately equipped vehicles with roof-racks with top-heavy loads accompanied by overburdened rickety trailers. On one occasion I borrowed a trailer from a dealer in Co Laois to transport a large load home from Limerick. When l stopped to eat in a pub, I discovered the trailer had spun off the back and been lost somewhere enroute. I never found it.

Another memorable incident happened after a house auction when I forgot where I’d buried the cash profits. I’d buried the cash as a security measure as I had been warned about a possible criminal presence at the auction in question. After much digging in the garden, I eventually found the money hidden underneath my own bathroom’s shower tray.

Another highlight was a £100,000 deal to design, furnish and fit 'The Poitín Stil' Irish pub in Baltimore, USA in the late 1990s with traditional Irish furniture.

What advice would you give to collectors and investors?

I’d advise young people starting a home that they will find much more interesting things by buying antiques than they ever could from retail parks. And there is always value in the items when you get fed up with them and want to get rid of them.

I wish that I could have pursued academic antiques courses to better complement the practical side of the business and I would urge any aspiring dealer to do so. But I couldn’t really advise people to go into the business now as public interest in antiques has declined.

What do you personally collect?

I don’t really collect anything specific – I always tried to sell everything – but my house, obviously, has many beautiful antiques in it. I would like to have collected more Art Déco pieces as I particularly like the designs of that era.

What would you buy if money were no object?

It’s too late now as I’m retiring but I regret that I didn’t attempt to establish Delvin Farm as an ‘Avoca’- style location during the economic boom. Also, I always enjoyed being involved in the private restorations of old period houses and would love to have been in charge of a project like that.

What’s your favourite work of art and why?

In the 1970s, myself and a few pals won a national farm tasks competition organised by Macra na Feirme and our prize was a trip to Holland. Amsterdam. I went to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and saw Rembrandt's 'Night Watch'. I still remember it. In conversation with Michael Parsons