For collectors – and sellers – of 1916 Rising memorabilia, this is the moment of truth. With centenary commemorations just a fortnight away, the first of the big history auctions of items associated with the Rising takes place at Whyte's at 1pm tomorrow in the Freemason's hall in Molesworth Street. There's a last chance to view the items in Whyte's Gallery today. Hundreds of items to go under the hammer include an original copy of the Proclamation, estimated at €150,000 to €250,000, and the medals awarded to two of the document's signatories – Thomas Clarke (€80,000-€120,000) and Joseph Plunkett (€70,000- €100,000).
The auction has been long anticipated and there is considerable interest in the outcome. The prices achieved tomorrow (and at similar auctions next month by Fonsie Mealy and Adam’s) are likely to set the benchmark for 1916-related memorabilia for years to come. There is, inevitably, some public unease about items associated with the State’s history being sold off at auction. But some vendors need the money while others have inherited items in which they have little interest. Such auctions also prompt some commentators to demand that the State step in as a purchaser. But Ireland’s National Library and National Museum already have a big stock of material relating to the 1916 Rising and, while both institutions continue to make occasional purchases, the State cannot possibly buy every such item put up for sale.
But is there a danger that "1916 fatigue" is already setting in? Last month, Whyte's art auction in the RDS included a selection of paintings with a 1916 Rising theme and, ominously, none of them sold. Among them were Henry Street, Dublin, During the 1916 Rising by Edmond Delrenne (€8,000-€10,000); 1916 Rising Leaders (a set of seven portrait drawings) by Thomas Ryan (€8,000-€12,000); and The Resurgent Spirit by Brett McEntagart (€3,000-€4,000).
And, in January, in a sale at Spink auctioneers in New York, of an important collection of medals relating to the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence, some of the top lots failed to sell. Following that sale, auctioneer Ian Whyte said the New York auction results were “generally encouraging” and the failure of some of the top lots to find buyers was due to the high costs involved for Irish bidders trying to purchase at an overseas auction. He believed some of the unsold lots would have found buyers if the items had been auctioned in Ireland.
Not all the lots in the sale have huge estimates. Among the more affordable are those associated with Sir Roger Casement and his failed attempt to import guns from Germany which ended disastrously when the ship, the Aud, was scuttled outside Cork Harbour by her captain, Karl Spindler, rather than have her captured by the HMS Bluebell.
Ian Whyte said: "The failure of the Aud to land its cargo of arms and ammunition on April 22nd, 1916, provides us with one of the great 'what ifs?' of Irish history. Roger Casement's co-operation with Germany to provide weapons and his arrest, trial and execution by hanging are an essential part of the story of 1916."
The auction includes: Lot 172 "a bronze anchor windlass steam valve, salvaged from the Aud in 2008 by the current owner" (estimated at €2,000-€3,000); and Lot 176 "a very rare medal awarded to Aud crew-members "from the Executive Committee for Freedom in America 1931, for his services to Ireland at Easter 1916" (€800-€1,200). Lot 171 comprises "three very rare original photographs taken on board U-19, the German submarine that brought Casement to Banna Strand" from an album of photographs owned by the widow of the captain, Raimund Weisbach, commander of U-19 (€1,500-€2,000).
Other sale highlights include a bottle of whiskey distilled by the Dublin Whiskey Distillery (DWD) in 1916 – one of only four bottles believed to be extant – and, according to Whyte’s, at a top estimate of €25,000 believed to be “the oldest and most expensive Irish whiskey ever offered at auction”.