Friday 28 October 2016

Treasures: Going back to the future for true Art Deco

Published 23/09/2016 | 02:30

Mullen’s Art Deco radiogram
Mullen’s Art Deco radiogram
Ireland v Germany programme

THE term 'Art Deco' is often misused to describe anything that's both decorative and arty. In fact, Art Deco is a very defined and specific historic style. It emerged in France before the First World War and was at its pinnacle through the 1920s and 1930s.

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Art Deco favoured straight lines, geometric forms and modern materials like Bakelite and chrome. It influenced many different types of design, ranging from buildings, furniture and jewellery to cars and ocean liners. Art Deco was a forward-looking style that didn't reference the past, which may be part of the reason why the designs still seem fresh and exciting.

It's probably the most popular of all the 20th century styles and genuine Art Deco can be very, very expensive. Phyllis MacNamara is the owner of Cobwebs, an antique jewellery shop in Galway. She remembers visiting a house many years ago, where she was asked to entertain the family's six-year-old daughter.

"The little girl was decorating her doll's house and had a box of trinkets, out of which she pulled one that she intended to use as a light fitting for her doll's house."

MacNamara instantly recognised the object as an Art Deco aquamarine and diamond earring made by Cartier. She told the parents, who had no idea that it was worth anything. The family turned the house upside down in the search for the second earring. Eventually, it was found and the earrings were whisked off to Sotheby's. "I think that those earrings paid for the little girl's education," she says. "Even talking to you now, I can still feel the buzz!"

Such discoveries, of course, are rare. Most people cherish their Art Deco jewellery and know that it's valuable. John Brereton Jewellers is one of the exhibitors at the 51st Irish Antique Dealers Association Fair, currently taking place at the RDS, and will be bringing a number of Art Deco pieces, including a aquamarine pendant in platinum and white gold (€5,950).

MacNamara, also attending, will bring an emerald and diamond ring (€4,250) and a doorknocker pendant set in diamonds on a platinum chain (€5,750). "It was a period of elegance, refinement and sophistication. The pieces still look fresh and new," she says. "Art Deco is a style in jewellery that's hard to repeat because of the finesse of the workmanship. That's why the original pieces can be expensive. You're paying for the rarity and for the fact that it has survived. Often, you could have it copied and it would be cheaper, but it wouldn't be the same."

"Art Deco is fun and it's useful," says Niall Mullen, an antique dealer with a special interest in Art Deco furniture. "It's frivolous and it's sad. It used styles that hadn't been seen before and materials that had never been used. It was the era of the cocktail cabinet. I don't think they existed before Art Deco and I imagine they were a response to prohibition. You could lock your drink away and reveal it with a flourish in trusted company."

Mullen is also attending the 51st Irish Antique Dealers Association Fair with a number of Art Deco pieces. His current darling is a fully functioning radiogram made in macassar ebony - a dark wood emblematic of the Art Deco movement - embellished with ivory. The straight lines in the grain of the wood are inlaid to create geometric patterns on the front of the piece. "It's like two pieces of cooked ham," he explains. "You fold them back and they're a mirror image of each other." The top of the piece is inlaid with shagreen (the skin of the sting ray), which has its own natural geometry. The radiogram costs €18,750 and plays only 78s. "If you had all the money in the world and wanted to resist the dematerialisation of music, this would be the piece for you."

It's generally considered that the Second World War brought the Art Deco period to a close. Pieces like the radiogram, which dates from the late 1940s, are described as made "in the Art Deco style" although they often look identical to genuine Art Deco pieces. But, while the radiogram is valuable, most later furniture made in the Art Deco style are not.

"There is very little genuine Art Deco furniture in Ireland," Mullen explains. "The 1920s and 1930s were tough, tumultuous times and few people were in a position to invest in fancy furniture." There are, however a good number of 1940s and 1950s bedroom suites made in the Art Deco style. Mass produced in cheap materials, they have neither quality nor craftsmanship. "You find them in people's bedrooms hanging by a thread," says Mullen. "They've done their job but they don't have any value."

The Irish Antique Dealers Association Fair runs in the Main Hall at the RDS today and throughout the weekend. Admission is €10 at the door. The fair has a full lecture programme, including a talk by Phyllis MacNamara on Jewels Of Love And Marriage at 4pm tomorrow. See,,,

In the salerooms


Whyte's sale of Irish and International Art will take place on Monday, September 26. It includes 78 lots from the collection of the late George & Maura McClelland: FE McWilliam's iconic cherry wood sculpture, 'Matriarch' (est €100,000 to €150,000) and 'Travellers', 1948, an Aubusson tapestry by Louis Le Brocquy from an edition of nine (€60,000 to €80,000). See

Just two days later, Adam's Sale of Important Irish Art takes place on Wednesday. Potential top lots include two paintings by Jack B Yeats: 'A Man Doing Accounts' (1929) (€200,000 to €300,000) and 'The Talent' (1944) (€100,000 to €150,000).



Mark Fortune will be demonstrating the forgotten craft of mending broken china as part of an antiques fair at Wells House and Gardens, Gorey, Co Wexford tomorrow and Sunday. Admission is €3, see Also this weekend, Mount Wolseley Antiques & Vintage Fair takes place at Mount Wolseley Hotel, Tullow, Co Carlow on Sunday, with everything from home décor and tableware to vintage movie posters and advertisements on show. Admission is €3.50, see

An antiques fair at Adare Woodlands House Hotel, Co Limerick, also takes place on Sunday from 11am to 6pm. Admission is €3.50, see


The forthcoming Rare Book & Collectors Sale at Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers includes a programme for the international soccer match dubbed 'The day Nazi Germany played Ireland' (est €300 to €400).


The match between Ireland and Germany took place at Dalymount Park on October 17, 1936. Ireland won 5-2.

The sale also includes rare GAA memorabilia: the medal collection of the Kerry footballer Joe Barrett (€30,000 to €40,000); and the hurling stick reputedly used by Wexford's Nicky Rackard, 'Cuchulainn's Son', during the 1955 All-Ireland Final (€350 to €500). The sale takes place in The Kilkenny Ormonde Hotel, Kilkenny, on Wednesday, September 28 at 10.30am. See


The sale of the contents of Loughton House, Moneygall, Co Offaly, will take place on site from September 27 to 30, with items ranging from garden fountains to vintage cars.

There are several lots of Irish silver, including a pair of silver covered ewers made by Thomas Walker of Dublin in 1741 (est €60,000 to €80,000) and a pair of Rocaille sauce boats made by John Hamilton of Dublin in 1745 (€30,000 to €50,000).

For full details, see


A clearance auction of Grange Sylvae, Duninga, Goresbridge, Co Kilkenny, will take place on Monday at 11am at the Sales Complex, Goresbridge. The sale will include antique furniture, oil paintings, prints, clocks and much more. See

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