Mosse mugs and snail plates - what sold at Mary Robinson country home sell off

Former president’s kitchenalia was snapped up but many artworks failed to sell

"Let them eat cake", Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France reputedly said when told her subjects were famished. Yesterday, [Tuesday, November 28th] the plain people of Ireland had a unique opportunity to buy snail dishes owned by the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson.

A pair of ceramic 'escargotières' - specially-designed dishes for eating the delicacy known as 'escargots' in French - went under the hammer in an auction of items being sold by Mrs Robinson - who was President of Ireland from 1990 to 1997- and her husband Nick in Sheppard's Irish Auction House in Durrow Co Laois.

But auction-goers weren’t exactly chomping at the bit and after some desultory bidding, the dishes sold for just € 70 - below the low estimate of 100.

Sheppard's said the glazed dishes had an extra twist: - they're designed in the shape of a snail and, although unmarked, were "possibly made by the famous ceramics factory of Saint-Clément" near Lunéville in the Meurthe-et-Moselle department of eastern France. Each dish is indented with 12 'wells' to hold the snails which are traditionally served as a starter in France. In French cuisine, the snails are removed from the shell and cooked before being placed back in the shells before serving. Diners use a special tongs (pince à escargot) to hold the shell, and a special fork (fourchette à escargot) to winkle out the flesh. However, these implements were not included in the auction.


Snails - like frogs' legs - are not widely eaten in Ireland but occasionally appear of the menus of French-owned, or staffed, restaurants. Snail farming is a recent phenomenon in Irish agriculture - the first commercial production began in 2014 when 'Gaelic Escargot' was established in Carlow by Eva Milka who moved to Ireland from Poland. Although regional variations exist, the definitive recipe for snails, according to the ultimate authority on French haute cuisine, the 'Larousse Gastronomique', is for 'escargots à la bourguignonne' - cooked in butter, garlic, shallots and parsley.

The Robinsons were selling the contents of their country house - Massbrook, a Victorian shooting and fishing estate on 113 acres near Lough Conn in Co Mayo - including art, furniture and crockery. The couple have already sold the estate and have returned to live in Dublin. Sheppard's said most of the 200 lots sold including a bronze bust of Mary Robinson by the sculptress Imogen Stuart that made €4,800; a Victorian garden roller that fetched €440; and three Nicholas Mosse Pottery mugs that made €25 - a bargain according to the auctioneers as just "one mug would cost that much in the shops". But there were some high-profile casualties. Separate portraits of Mary Robinson and of Nick Robinson by the renowned Donegal-based English artist, the late Derek Hill, each valued at up to euro 5,000, failed to sell.

"A Zimbabwean 'folk art' painting by an artist signed 'Margret' (sic) sold for euro 200 (above the estimate of euro 80- euro120). A caricature drawing by Nick Robinson of his wife Mary wearing a mini-skirt while delivering a lecture at Trinity College in 1971 sold for euro 360 (below the estimate of 400-600) but a cartoon by him, published in The Irish Times on the occasion of the bankruptcy of Rolls Royce, failed to sell."

Michael Parsons

Michael Parsons

Michael Parsons is a contributor to The Irish Times writing about fine art and antiques