Empress of Austria's riding whip makes €37,000


ATTENDING THE big “Country House Collections” sale in Co Meath yesterday was like wandering on to the set of the new television drama serial Downton Abbey.

Despite the financial crisis, there was lively interest in an auction which featured the archaic trappings and accoutrements associated with a lost world of footmen, snooty dowager-countesses and floppy-haired dukes. Recessions, improbably, seem to prompt mass nostalgia for the vanished lifestyle of an idle aristocracy; the 1970s oil crisis had Upstairs, Downstairs; the bleak early 1980s, Brideshead Revisited.

The venue, Slane Castle, had been hired for the event from owner Lord Mount Charles (the 8th Marquess Conyngham) though he wasn’t selling any of his own family silver.

Dublin fine art auctioneers Adam’s described the sale as an “offering of random stuff, mostly from Irish country houses” and said telephones had been “hopping” with “commission bids from Ireland and overseas”.

“All you have to do”, they pointed out “is put your hand up and something memorable is yours”. It was the kind of day when an itchy nose could set you back 50 grand.

A sumptuous catalogue featured 796 lots, from the Georgian, Regency, Victorian and Edwardian periods, including furniture, paintings, silver, glass and collectibles – ranging from scrimshaw to gold and enamelled cuff links (“A gift from the maharaja Bharatpur”). New age dandies snapped up unusual items including a a coachman’s overcoat with a set of 18 livery buttons, top hats in a smart box decorated with the coronet of Lord Templemore; and a pair of white leather riding britches by Tautz and Co, Piccadilly.

Before lunch, a Georgian Irish wine cooler, the size of a bathtub, and technically known as a wine cistern, sold for €55,000, and a pair of Chinese Mei-Ping shaped vases smashed through their estimated price of €600-€800 and sold for €42,000.

Auction-goers noted Chinese ceramics are notoriously difficult to value and recalled the sale of a vase at Sheppard’s of Durrow, Co Laois, earlier this year which sold for 1,000 times its estimate.

But the day’s most sensational result was the sale of lot 209: the empress of Austria’s riding whip.

The whip, decorated with a silver band bearing the imperial Habsburg crest, was presented to Capt Robert Fowler, master of the Meath Hunt in 1879, during a visit by the empress to Co Meath.

His great, great, grand-nephew Charles Fowler (33) of Rahinstown House, Co Meath, said the family had “discovered the whip in the attic a few months ago” and consigned it for sale with an estimate of €3,000-€5,000. Following swift and intense bidding, auctioneer James O’Halloran brought the hammer down at €37,000.

Mr Fowler raced from the saleroom “to phone mum” (Lady Jennifer) with the news. He said she was very pleased and that he was amazed.

Mr O’Halloran said the whip had generated significant interest and that Adam’s had received inquiries from the Austrian embassy and the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna.

However, the successful buyer was an unnamed collector in the Channel Islands who outbid a commission bid from Austria.

Some of the items sold seemed especially in tune with the national mood for vengeance.

An 18th century Irish iron pike fetched €500; a pair of French pistols, €380; and a rare Irish cavalry sabre €3,300.

Later, Lord Mount Charles said he had “bought a number of items” for his personal collection including a painting, for €3,500, of a horse named Dandy by artist William Brocas.

Accompanied by his wife Lady Iona and son Alex, he said the sale had been a success because, at a time of financial volatility, people wanted to “invest in something tangible rather than stocks and shares”.