Life’s Work: Oliver Usher, antiques auctioneer, Kells, Co Meath
‘Buy what you love, not necessarily what the market dictates’
Oliver Usher: “I fell into the business, by chance, 37 years ago”
Oliver Usher holds monthly auctions of antiques in the salesroom at Usher’s Auction Rooms on John Street, Kells, Co Meath. He also provides on-the-premises house clearance sales, biannual antiquarian book auctions and a yearly horse tack and saddlery auction.
What’s your background?
I grew up and went to primary school in Kells, and attended secondary school in St Finian’s College in Mullingar. Growing up, I spent a lot of time helping my father, who was a plumbing contractor, and did a lot of work in period country houses in the locality. This helped to spark my interest in antiques and collectibles. My mother and my aunt Margaret had a passion for auctions and I would frequently travel the back-roads of the country with them, hunting for all sorts of bargains.
How did you get into the business? I fell into the business, by chance, 37 years ago. Previously, I was a sales rep for various companies. I started selling furniture from home, taking in containerloads of stock from Scotland. As this business developed I eventually applied for an auctioneer’s licence and became a member of the IAVI, which is now the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland. John McGrane, who was then an antique furniture auctioneer in Drogheda, trained me in how to conduct an auction. I started monthly clearance auctions on the first Friday of each month in the CYWS Hall, Navan. Christy Callaghan, the hall caretaker at the time, took a great interest in the auctions and instilled a belief in me that I should continue to pursue a career in auctioneering. Some time after this I got the opportunity to purchase the former Regal Lager brewery in Kells, from which I have been selling ever since.
In the summer of 2014, the contents of a house clearance were consigned to the auction rooms. My wife, Aideen, was unpacking a box of bric-a-brac and spotted a glass car mascot resembling a ram’s head. She immediately suspected this was an unusual piece and it turned out to be an original Lalique piece in almost pristine condition. It subsequently sold at our auction for €4,700. This was more than €1,000 above what a similar lot had achieved in Bonhams in London earlier in the year. The vendor was delighted. The piece had been in the family for many years and had been used as a doorstopper.
Another career highlight was selling a 19th-century bookcase that belonged to the family of Joseph Mary Plunkett, one of the signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic in 1916. The bookcase achieved £10,000, which was an exceptional price for its type in those pre-euro days.
Your most unusual auctions?
An auction that we conducted at Clonhugh House for the late Günther von Bünau contained the most unusual lot I have ever sold. A German who had come to Ireland, he was a pioneer of deer-breeding in Ireland and had a large herd on his farm in Meath. Günther approached me with trepidation before the sale to see if we could include the herd of deer along with the contents of the house. We duly obliged and sold the lot of them, some of which ended up in Wexford and Wicklow.
On another occasion, a woman brought in two paintings to be auctioned. On the night of the auction a gentleman looked at the paintings and thought his wife would like them. He bid on the lot in question and managed to secure their purchase.
When he brought the surprise gift home to his wife he quickly realised that she had, in fact, brought the very same paintings in to the auction rooms the week before to include them in the sale.
The family still enjoy recounting that story.
What advice would you give collectors/investors?
Buy what you love, not necessarily what the market dictates. When I first started selling at auction, the late Edward (Ted) Wrest of Lennox Street, Portobello, Dublin 8, gave me some good advice: always buy the good items – they will always hold their value.
The Wrest family were restorers and dealers and when my auctioneering licence was approved Ted made my auctioneer’s gavel. I still use this same gavel today, with its many dents and dinges.
What do you personally collect and why?
I am a collector of books, in particular those about Irish interest, history, nature and travel. This interest was put to good use over a period of three years when working with a great team of people on the book The Field Names of County Meath. This was the first publication of its kind, which chronicles names, old and new, for the fields of Co Meath. It was so successful that other counties are now conducting similar research. The earliest book I have in my collection is An Answer to a Challenge, written by Archbishop James Ussher in 1631. He was a very distant ancestor of mine.
What would you buy if money were no object? I would love to buy a significant Co Meath building and surrounding land that would be suitable for conversion into a museum for the county. Meath has such a rich, fascinating and varied heritage, yet there never has been a dedicated museum in the county. I have long been involved with campaigns to get the cause started, even having a pop-up museum in my auction rooms as part of the Kells Heritage Festival.
What’s your favourite work of art?
The artwork, colours and detail contained in the four volumes of the Book of Kells are second to none and are a continual source of intrigue and interest.