Thursday 21 September 2017

Treasures: Vintage Ferguson the cream of the crop

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

Vintage Ferguson-Brown Type A tractor sold at Mealy's for €20,000
Vintage Ferguson-Brown Type A tractor sold at Mealy's for €20,000
An early 1960s Porsche diesel 329 tractor fetched €17,500 at the Winter Sale
Harp flag

In 1938, John Murphy bought a tractor to use on his farm in Hillsborough, Co Down. He was a forward-thinking man. At the time, there were only a handful of tractors in the country. The Ferguson-Brown Type A was one of just 1,350, designed by Harry Ferguson and built by David Brown & Sons Ltd in Huddersfield. On Murphy's farm, the tractor replaced the two horses that had formerly drawn the plough.

The tractor's inventor, Harry Ferguson, was a local man. He was born and brought up in Dromara, Co Down, at the foot of the Mourne Mountains. In 1945, as Murphy's nephew remembers, Ferguson happened by his uncle's farm and spotted one of his tractors pulling a reaper. Ferguson took an interest in the performance of the tractors that he designed and asked permission to drive a few rounds. You can imagine the entire family gathering at the gate to watch the historic moment.

Murphy's tractor was kept in use until 1952, when it was replaced by a newer Ferguson machine. The older tractor was carefully kept and lovingly restored. In December 2016, it went under the hammer at Mealy's Winter Sale (est €20,000 to €25,000). The lot included the original log book and a letter, dated 1985, which tells the story of the encounter with Ferguson. Tractors of this vintage are highly collectible, but this one didn't sell and will probably be brought to auction in the UK later in the year. It's sad to think of such a poignant piece of Irish agricultural heritage leaving the country.

Another Ferguson-Brown Type A tractor, also in Mealy's Winter Sale, sold for €20,000. It was part of a consignment sent to South African and Rhodesian airfields in the late 1930s (in those days, you needed a tractor to get an aeroplane underway). This one was probably fitted with a generator run by a side-mounted pulley and was catalogued as the "only surviving model with a side-mounted steering wheel and seat". This construction gave the tractor a strange side-saddle appearance, unlike the standard Ferguson Brown, where the driver sat firmly astride.

Both tractors demonstrate Ferguson's famous three-point linkage, a hydraulically operated system for attaching an implement to a farm tractor. Prior to this, a tractor was just a towing device that dragged a plough on a chain. Like horse-drawn ploughing, this was a cumbersome process. When you reached the end of the field, you had to unhitch the plough, turn it around and hitch it up again.

Unlike a horse, a tractor didn't automatically stop when it met resistance. If the plough hit an underground obstacle, it could snag, sometimes tipping the tractor backwards and crushing the driver.

"The three-point linkage enabled the implement that the tractor was towing to become an integrated part of the machine," says Dr Austin O'Sullivan of the Irish Agricultural Museum. "The driver could lift the plough and spin it around easily at the end of the field. It was like connecting the arms to the body."

Ferguson Brown was the first tractor in the world to use the three-point system, which became the industry standard.

The three-point linkage was a technological breakthrough but, in terms of immediate sales, it had mixed results. The tractor alone was not enough - the farmer also had to buy the implements to go with it. The Ferguson-Brown Type A was initially priced at £224 and a basic range of implements cost an extra £26. In 1930s Ireland, this was a lot of money and beyond the budget of most small farmers - the very people that Ferguson wanted to reach.

"Ferguson envisaged a world with neat tractors being driven by happy farmers and saw this as his life's mission," O'Sullivan explains. "He came from a farming background and his father put out behind the plough. Horse-ploughing wasn't for him and he could see that it wasn't the way of farming in the future.

"He saw that there would be a huge demand for small tractors to use on small farms, but he had a bit of tunnel vision and he hung himself out to dry."

The Ferguson-Brown was imperfect, underpowered and expensive. By 1937, unsold tractors were stockpiling at the factory. Ferguson and David Brown Ltd couldn't agree on how to increase sales and parted company. "Ferguson was a very exact person and this made him demanding to work with," O'Sullivan says.

O'Sullivan describes how Ferguson supplied each new owner with a manual for their tractor. "He found that farmers in Ireland were singularly unwilling to consult the manual. They preferred to work it out for themselves."

In the long term, after several stormy partnerships, Ferguson did achieve his dream. His TE20 tractor was produced by the Standard Motor Company between 1946 and 1956. The 'little grey Fergie' became a staple in small farms across Ireland. These too are collectible, in good condition, although nothing like as valuable as the Ferguson-Browns. Rare tractors from the mid-20th century also have value. In Mealy's 2016 Winter Sale, an early 1960s Porsche diesel 329 tractor sold for €17,500.

Stories of 'barn finds' - valuable tractors discovered neglected in a shed - are increasingly rare. With a canny eye on websites like Done Deal, most owners of old tractors are well aware of the value of what they have. Buyers, though, should check the authenticity of restoration works with care. Improvisation is in the nature of farming: there are many tales of buyers coming home with a "genuine vintage tractor", only half of which is genuine.

See irishagrimuseum.ie and mealys.ie.

In the salerooms

WHYTE'S

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Harp flag
 

The 1916 Rising medal posthumously awarded to Joseph Plunkett sold for €40,000 at Whyte's Eclectic Collector Auction on January 21. The medal was famously binned by Plunkett's widow, Grace Plunkett (nee Gifford) in 1941 and, equally famously, rescued from the bin.

It first appeared at auction in Whyte's History Sale in March 2016 with an estimate of €70,000 to €100,000, but was withdrawn at €68,000. The auction included some surprises including a 19th century Standard of the Kingdom of Ireland (above) - a blue wool flag showing a gold Maid of Erin harp (est €300 to €400) - fetched €1,600. For full results, see whytes.ie.

RJ KEIGHERY ANTIQUES

The next auction at RJ Keighery Antiques, Waterford, takes place on Monday at 10.30am.

Lots include an antique Irish crystal five-branch chandelier, possible old Waterford, (est €900 to €1,200); a Victorian mahogany dining table with two leaves (est €1800 to €2,400); 12 carved oak dining chairs, including two carvers (est €800 to €1,200); an Art Deco mirror-door wardrobe (c.1916) with bevelled mirror and bottom drawer (€600 to €1,000; and a Persian Tabriz rug (est €700 to €1,000).

For full details and viewing times, see antiquesireland.ie. Online bidding is available on the-saleroom.com.

MITCHELL'S AUCTIONEERS

A spring antique of furniture and collectibles will take place at Victor Mitchell's Mount Butler Salesrooms, Roscrea, Co Tipperary, on Wednesday at 10.30am. Lots range from a Cadbury's advertising mirror (est €250), through furniture, paintings and rugs, to a pair of cast-iron entrance gates.

Potential items of interest include three Georgian gentleman's linen presses (est €400 to €600 each) and a brass-mounted Regency mahogany sideboard (est €1,200).

For the full catalogue and viewing times, see victormitchell.com. Online bidding is available on the-saleroom.com.

FONSIE MEALY'S

A rare copy of John Estuagh's 'A Call To The Unfaithful Professors Of Truth'… to which is added 'Divers Epistles' of the same author sold at Fonsie Mealy's sale of Rare Books, Literature, Manuscripts, Maps & Works of Art last December.

The volume was printed by Benjamin Franklin in 1744 and is considered excessively rare, the last known sale of a copy at auction took place 70 years ago. The volume (est €7,000 to €10,000) sold for €12,000.

The top lot in the sale was a book of illustrations by Samuel Cresswell: 'A Series Of Eight Sketches In Colour' together with a 'Coloured Map Of The Route by Liet SG Cresswell of the Voyages of the HMS Investigator, Capt McClure, during the Discovery of the North West Passage' (1854).

The book, which sold for €24,000, included spectacular illustrations of the perils and adventures of 19th century exploration.

See fonsiemealy.ie.

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