Life’s Work: Michelle Brophy, Auctions co-ordinator, Sheppard’s, Co Laois
“I should have gone to China to learn Mandarin”
Michelle Brophy, auctions co-ordinator with Sheppard’s Irish Auction House, the art and antiques auctioneers based in Durrow, Co Laois. Photograph: Frank Miller
Michelle Brophy is an auctions co-ordinator with Sheppard’s Irish Auction House, the art and antiques auctioneers based in Durrow, Co Laois. The family-run business holds regular auctions in the saleroom in Durrow and also has a Dublin office at 120 Pembroke Rd in Ballsbridge where valuations are held and items are accepted for auction. See sheppards.ie
What do you do?
I’m usually the first person people meet when they come in to consign an item to Sheppard’s or to register for bidding. I meet and greet buyers and sellers, register bidders for auctions, prepare sales contracts, research lots for auction catalogues and maintain the database.
What’s your background?
I grew up in Durrow and went to school in the Presentation Convent College (now the Castle Durrow Hotel)– once the home of Lord Ashford and now a country house hotel. During the recession in the 1980s I went abroad to find work – first to England for four years and then to Germany for a further four years.
I loved the countryside south of Munich close to the Austrian border. It’s hard to get to know people in Germany but once you do – you have friends for life. While there, I learned to speak the language.
Looking back on it, given what I’m dealing with in Sheppard’s, I should have gone to China to learn Mandarin instead. When I came back from Germany I got a job with the An Post Mails Centre in Portlaoise where I worked for a few years.
How did you get into the business and why?
I got into the auction business really by chance. I joined Sheppard’s eight years ago. At the time, I was working on a Community Employment Scheme in Durrow and my main project was setting up a ‘Meals- on-Wheels’ service for the elderly. I heard there might be a vacancy and went for it. I got into my car and drove down to auctioneer Michael Sheppard’s house. I didn’t know him very well at the time but rang the doorbell and, to his surprise, handed him my CV. He said ‘come in on Monday for a chat’. I did and we had an informal chat – and he said “can you start next week?”. It was supposed to be for three half-days a week but it turned out to be full-time and I’ve been here ever since.
Dealing with a collection of Chinese porcelain that had been inherited by a Co Carlow family and that was consigned to Sheppard’s. Among the lots was a 12-inch-high blue-and-white porcelain vase estimated at about €100. On the day of the auction in March 2010 there was a bidding war between an antiques dealer from London and a woman from Beijing who had both travelled over to Durrow for the auction. Bidding opened at €50. The vase eventually sold for €110,000.
The winning bidder was the London dealer who said afterwards the vase had been made for the personal collection of the 18th century Chinese emperor Qianlong. The under-bidder was very disappointed. A few years later, in 2013, a man from Co Offaly came in with a plastic Dunnes Stores shopping bag full of ‘bits and pieces’ left to him by his late mother. He had no idea that the contents would make him over €110,000 richer. In the bag were 17 pieces of Chinese jade. They were sold individually and made a total of euro €110,300. Some of the bids came from China online. One lot – a Qing period pale celadon jade box, just 11cm high – made €36,000.
The publicity surrounding the planned auction of Jackie Kennedy’s letters consigned to auction at Sheppard’s in 2014 was very exciting. There was worldwide interest. Non-stop phone calls and e-mails. Media requests for interviews from American TV networks and the BBC. When the letters were withdrawn from the auction, we were all very disappointed.
What advice would you give auction-goers/ buyers/sellers?
If you really want something at auction, go to the saleroom in person or register to bid by phone or online instead of leaving an absentee bid. I’ve seen people lose something they really wanted because they were outbid by just one euro. If you have something that you think might be of interest that you want to sell, get it valued. There’s no charge at Sheppard’s for valuation. You might have a hidden gem in your attic that you knew nothing about.
What do you personally collect and why?
I have a small collection of paintings by Carmel Mooney, a Dublin artist who is also my aunt and godmother. Her paintings are in quite a few private and public collections and in 2001 she was selected to represent Ireland in the ‘Murano Venezia Europa Exhibitio’ in Brussels where her paintings of volcanoes were created in glass sculpture form by the Berengo Glass Masters of Murano, Venice.
What would you buy if money were no object?
A Ming vase! I love oriental art but can’t afford it. I’m learning more about the subject – which I find fascinating – from Dr Alan Fletcher, an expert on Chinese porcelain and a client of Sheppard’s, who has kindly taken me under his wing.
What’s your favourite work of art?
A painting by Sir John Lavery entitled ‘A Summer Afternoon’. It’s a beautiful picture and I have the perfect spot for it – a hall with a high ceiling and it would hang beautifully there.
I haven’t seen the painting in the flesh but know it only from
photographs on the internet. I don’t know where it is now or who owns it. A version of it, ‘A Summer Afternoon – Sketch’ was sold at Sotheby’s in London in May 2004 by a private Scottish collector for £ 296,800 (approximately €380,000).I don’t know who bought it although I heard it was bought by a private Irish collector so it may be somewhere in Ireland. I love Lavery’s paintings. We’ve sold a few here at Sheppard’s.