Artwork saved from the skip is sold for €40,000
IT was a tale of discovery, revelation and mystery of Biblical proportions – which sadly did not quite extend to the price achieved.
But all parties were content after a rare 15th century Flemish altar piece mistaken for a dusty old press and miraculously saved from the skip sold last night for the respectable sum of €40,000.
"The sun shone on it and we saw the outline of a figure," said parish priest of Piercetown, Co Wexford, Fr John O'Reilly, as he described the moment when they realised that there was more to this tattered piece of old furniture than met the eye.
Creaking open the doors for the first time in nobody knows how long, he saw the gleam of gold and the colourful statues bent in sorrow over the crucified body of Jesus, in his mother's arms.
It was a journey of almost two years from that moment until the triptych was attributed to a follower of Dieric Bouts, created between 1460 to 1490, and went up for sale at Sheppard's auction house in Durrow, Co Laois.
The guide price was €80,000 to €120,000. But bidding was a slow process and the opening bid of €10,000 inched up until at last it was all done at €40,000 and the gavel came down.
Completing the mysterious circle of its journey, the triptych is now returning 'home' to the Low Countries after being bought by a Belgian art specialist who had travelled over for the sale.
"We had no idea what price we would achieve – these are very specialist pieces," said auctioneer Philip Sheppard.
No reserve had been put on the altar piece, he said. And the mystery of its provenance was all part of the allure and mystique of antiques.
"We had a man who came in last year with a Dunnes Stores bag full of little pieces of jade wondering if they were valuable," he revealed. "We sold them for €120,000. They were from his mother's collection."
Mr Sheppard also revealed that they had sold an ancient Chinese gilded box the previous day for €250,000 to a London trader.
An expert in the room said there was little doubt the Belgian specialist had got "a deal" for the altar piece.
It is believed that he will now begin the process of painstakingly conserving the piece, spending a six-figure sum on bringing it back to its original condition before selling it in years to come – probably at the TEFAF trade fair at Maastricht in the Netherlands, one of the top auction dealers in the world.
A similar altar piece recently sold for €2.3m at TEFAF – so the Piercetown triptych could indeed have been a very good deal.
However, Fr O'Reilly, who was at the auction with his niece, was not disappointed at the sum achieved.
"It was marvellous," he declared. "It could have ended up in the skip."
The money will now go to the parish and they will decide how to spend it.
Also auctioned were several portraits of bishops and cardinals from All Hallows' College in Dublin.
Mr Sheppard said they had been due to sell the controversial Jacqueline Kennedy letters last month from All Hallows until they were withdrawn.
In the foyer of the Durrow auction house, an immense and stately portrait of Bishop Scannell of Omaha by Leo Whelan was hung directly opposite a French nude by Andre Derain – which sold last night for €120,000.
And a Chinese river scene from 1830 sold for €36,000.