Monday 24 October 2016

Treasures: If it floats your boat...

Ireland’s fine arts, antiques and collectables column

Eleanor Flegg

Published 22/05/2015 | 02:30

Wounded redcoat soldier is half price
Wounded redcoat soldier is half price
Carved music sheet boy
Jubilant cherub wall light

DRIVING back to Dublin with a newly acquired 27ft Sea Ray Pachanga powerboat in tow, Paul Boland had some time to think about what he would say to his wife, who had sent him to an auction in Roscrea to buy a fridge.

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He had forgotten about the fridge.

"The only thing I could think of in my defence was that the boat has a fridge in it," he says.

Boland had set off earlier that day to Mitchell's Auction Rooms in Roscrea where there was a catering auction on that day, and where he was fairly certain of finding the second-hand stainless steel fridge they needed.

"I put down my €500 deposit and got my bidding card," he says. "There was a perfect fridge but it was fairly far down the catalogue so I had a couple of hours to spare."

With three different auctions happening on the premises at the same time, there was plenty to occupy his time. "I went to get a burger and chips. They told me it would take four minutes for my burger to cook and, while I was waiting, I could see the big screen where they were showing one of the other auctions. Then, up on the screen came this beautiful boat..."

Someone placed a bid for €6,500 and Boland, realising at a glance that the boat was worth more than that, raised his hand. "Then the other fellow stuck up his hand again and so did I. I had to throw my chips in the bin, I was too nervous to eat them." He bought the boat for €9,500, including tax and commission. In the excitement, he'd forgotten about the fridge.

When buying at auction, the received wisdom is that you decide in advance what you are going to bid on, while ensuring you have the money to pay for it and the space to put it. That's how it works on paper. In practice, there is often a lot of spontaneity involved.

"The trip to the accounts office can be a sobering, humbling experience," says George Gerard Mealy of Mealy's in Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny ( "We call it the Confession Box. It's the place where the sins of the bidding wars are confessed."

Often, as he describes, a couple will come in to bid for a piece of furniture. "They know what they want, they'll have it all measured out, and then they'll see a massive sideboard for €100 and all of a sudden one of them will just go for it. They often don't have a clue whether it will fit in the house or how they'll get it home. There's an emotional high that comes with live bidding and it's not really our place to stop them unless there's an issue with their credit."

Many of the larger auction houses hold thematic auctions, geared to specialist buyers. It's unlikely, for example, the telephone bidder who paid $179.4m (€159.86m) for Picasso's 1955 painting, Women Of Algiers, earlier this month in Christie's of New York had a different purchase in mind. (Hilariously, Fox News blurred out the breasts in the painting in their coverage of the record-breaking sale.) Also, bidding by telephone or online is less likely to result in impulse buys.

Spontaneous purchases are much more likely to happen in any one of the eclectic sales around the country, where the lots on offer are full of surprises. Mealy's Summer Sale (, which takes place in Castlecomer on May 26-27, ranges from an Irish George III sideboard, expected to sell for between €35,000 and €50,000, to a "lucky dip" box of 17 bottles of wine (€20 to €25). "You wouldn't know what you'd find in it," says Mealy, "but they would have been expensive wines when they were bought, so you could be lucky."

In between these two extremes are a pair of gilt bronze wall lights in the shape of jubilant cherubs (€4,000 to €6,000) made in late 19th century France after Gustav Joseph Cheret (1839-1894) and a marble statue of the kind that once stood in the alcoves of great country houses.

The finely carved statue shows a boy with a music sheet, one finger raised, and his stockings falling down (€5,000 to €6,000). There is also a 19th century scrimshaw carving of a three mast whaler (€2,000 to €3,000) and a bracket clock made by William Harrison of London (€2,500 to €3,500). The maker of the clock was most probably the son and assistant of John Harrison, whose marine chronometer famously solved the conundrum of how to find longitude at sea.

This particular sale has 1,000 lots from 150 vendors, including 147 lots from a house clearance (that's where the wine comes from).

A considerable collection of rare books came from the estate of the late Professor John M Kelly (1931-1991), TD and Professor of Law. Bargain hunters will note that a random selection of 90 coffee table books is guided between €40 and €60, although there is also much of specialist interest. Other items are sold on behalf of collectors downsizing their collections, or making room for new purchases.

Such purchases might include a brick from the Mahdi tomb on the Nile (€200 to €300). It was brought home by Captain Sponge in 1899 and functioned for years as a door stop in a large country house.

Other eccentricities include a life-size wax model of a wounded redcoat soldier seated in a 19th century invalid stretcher chair and carrying a pewter tankard of beer (you'll never know when you'll need one of those). The grisly composition is guided between €200 and €300.

"He didn't sell in our Spring Sale so now he's half price," Mealy explains. "By this stage we just want to see the back of him."

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