My Life’s Work: Robin O’Donnell, chief executive Hibernian Antiques Fairs
‘There has never been – nor will there ever be – a better time to buy brown furniture’
Robin O’Donnell: ‘I am a complete antiques nut and love everything old. Cars would be my weakness’
Robin O’Donnell, chief executive of Hibernian Antiques Fairs, Limerick. I organise some 30 antiques and art fairs at hotel venues throughout Ireland every year – usually on Sundays. The flagship fair is the Irish National Antiques and Art Fair, held biannually in the South Court Hotel Limerick. I have been in the antiques business since 1984 and established Hibernian Antiques Fairs in 1990.
What is your background?
I was born in 1959 and lived with my parents in a beautiful three-storey Victorian red-brick house on the Ennis Road in Limerick city. Richard Harris – the film star – was our next door neighbour. He’d arrive home in his Rolls Royce and tell his chauffeur to take us on a spin around Limerick.
My Mum adored antiques and attended every auction in the area. I was dragged along from time to time. In our house it turns out we had a Bossi fireplace in the drawing room. My Dad was asked if he would consider selling it. He did – for £5,000 or £6,000 – a huge amount of money in those days. I’m sure it completely cleared his mortgage.
Having completed my Leaving Certificate in Crescent College, Limerick, in 1977, I started my working life as a trainee stud manager for John Magnier and Vincent O’Brien at Coolmore Stud in Fethard, Co Tipperary, in January 1978. Those were early days in this empire.
I worked from 6am to 8pm, seven days a week. A nightmare. I stayed for several years but we eventually – and amicably – parted ways and I was out on a limb. My friends and family encouraged me to have a go at the antiques business. Without a penny to my name, I did.
How and why did you get into the business?
I opened an antiques shop in Limerick city in 1984 which I operated until 2000. The focus was on quality 18th- and 19th-century furniture, art, silver, silver-plate and clocks. It was a large premises with four floors over a basement. I employed two full-time furniture restorers who worked in the basement. Those were the days. It was difficult to keep goods in stock. Business was very buoyant.
In 1990 I attended two antiques fairs in Dublin as an exhibitor. At the second, in the Mansion House, I took the princely sum of £36. My brother was helping me. On our way home to Limerick, we were completely despondent and pulled in for a bite to eat. While licking my wounds over a glass of Merlot, I had complete hysterics when I thought about all the effort and time I had put into the fair, only to make a complete financial loss.
That was the moment I thought of running my first antiques fair. Limerick had no regular fair nor had most other cities around Ireland. That’s how Hibernian Antiques Fairs started. The 1990s were fantastic for them and we went from strength to strength.
What advice would you give collectors/investors?
There has never been – nor will there ever be – a better time to buy brown furniture. The brown furniture market is on its knees and there are bargains to be had at every antiques fair we run countrywide. If I could advise someone financially well-off, I would advise them to find a warehouse, stick in a dehumidifier and some heat and come to the fairs and buy antique furniture now. The value for money is there right now and an investor with foresight will make a huge killing within the next five or six years. Guaranteed. This end of the business is just waiting for the right spark to make it sexy again. Mark my words, it will happen. So buy now.
The biggest event I have run was a major antiques fair called the Luxury Collection in the K Club, Co Kildare, in 2008. Exhibitors showed a range of art, jewellery, antiques, sports cars, yachts, private jets and helicopters. The pavilions cost €90,000 to put up. Exhibitors included Ib Jorgensen, Solomon Art, John Farrington Jewellers, Johnston’s, the Leinster Gallery, Sotheby’s, Norma Smurfit, Harvey Nichols, Ferrari, Maserati, Bentley, Harley Davidson, Clive Christian, Boodles Diamonds, Weldon’s, Eurocopters and Cessna.
The timing was not great as the recession was officially announced in September and we had scheduled the event for October. But, as the saying goes, “the show must go on” – and it did. People arrived by helicopter. A well-known Irish businessman walked in during the first half-hour and bought a Bentley. Harvey Nicks were selling Jimmy Choo shoes.
A security man was assigned to guard a €155,000 single bottle of perfume – Clive Christian’s Imperial Majesty No 1, the scent worn by Katie Holmes when she married Tom Cruise, stored in a 500ml bottle made of 18-carat gold inset with a five-carat brilliant-cut diamond. The whole event was spectacular. This was the best idea I ever had and I hope to do it again when the economy improves.
What do you personally collect and why?
I am a complete antiques nut and love everything old. Cars would be my weakness. I have a beautiful 1970 2+2 E-type Jaguar and a 1977 Daimler. My home is full from top-to-toe with nice affordable brown furniture. I have a few nice pieces of art – both old and contemporary.
What would you buy if money were no object?
I would treat myself to a painting by the English artist TL Lowry who is best known for his Matchstick Men paintings. I love the simplicity of his work but also their vibrancy. I would also help my brother Brian O’Donnell out of the horrible situation he’s in. Brian is an extraordinary man and he has been through the wars [in well-publicised litigation] regarding a house, Gorse Hill in Killiney, Co Dublin.
What’s your favourite work of art and why?
A magnificent piece of marble sculpture from classical Greece called The Winged Victory of Samothrace that is in the Louvre in Paris. The headless statue, made more than 2,000 years ago, was discovered in 1863 by a French archaeologist and shipped back to France. It depicts the Greek goddess of Victory (Nike). I love it. It takes your breath away when standing in front of it.