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A slice of history comes at a price at the Big House

Bidders snap up treasures from hand-painted wallpaper for €7,000 to a desk for €82,000

THE sale of the contents of stately Mount Congreve in Co Waterford was seen by many as a rare chance to snap up a bargain and buy into the last days of the ascendancy. But what kind of history were they buying into -- and at what price?

Among over a thousand 'lots' sold in a marquee on the lawn on Tuesday and Wednesday were such varying items as a 1969 Rolls-Royce Phantom V1, which went for €46,000, to four rolls of hand-painted Chinese wallpaper, which were knocked down at the not very DIY price of €7,000.

At the other end of the scale you could indulge in anything from a bottle of 1964 Chateau Margaux to a couple of old tennis rackets or nine pairs of heavy 'gentleman's riding britches'.

"We had 13,000 people through the house, the interest was unreal," said Phonsie Mealy, of Mealy's auctioneers which conducted the sale in conjunction with Christie's. He said the sale raised in excess of €2.2m. "People wanted a slice of something unique and, of course, it was all quality -- a set of curtains sold for €10,000 and seven cushions made €7,000."

Ambrose Congreve, who died in 2011, "bought very well", he said, from collections belonging to the Rothschild family to great estates in England. He had been buying since the Forties.

"A lot of the Chinese stuff went abroad, but a lot of stuff stayed at home. There is money out there and people want to put it into something," said Mr Mealy.

Country house sales have over the years been a great public attraction, with books, porcelain, lamps, horse saddles, peat buckets, trunks and old suitcases, and even the curtains thrown in. To add a bit of class to the occasion these were interspersed with many grand items such as Louis XV ormolu bracket clocks and a Regency desk which went for €82,000.

There was, as the saying now goes, "something for everybody in the audience".

But was the two-day Mount Congreve event the 'last hurrah' for the 'Big House' as it was rather grandiosely billed in some of the press reports, or was it simply the Rolls-Royce of car boot sales?

Mount Congreve near Kilmeaden, Co Waterford, was the ancestral home of the late banker and gardening enthusiast Ambrose Congreve, who died at the age of 104 while attending the 2011 Chelsea Flower Show. He had inherited the 18th-Century pile in 1963 and largely remodelled the house between 1965 and 1969. During his long lifetime he filled his residence with treasures and bric-a-brac acquired at sales in Dublin, London, Paris and other destinations.

But last week's auction was unlike many earlier Irish house sales. The sale of the contents of Carton House in Kildare and Malahide Castle in the Seventies saw family collections of paintings, furniture and valuables which had been assembled over centuries and were rooted in the house and the surrounding area sadly dispersed around the world.

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The contents of Mount Congreve were the acquired possessions of a wealthy man with a great eye for antiques, but they had little or no affinity with the generations of the family who occupied the house for the previous 250 years.

Most of the really valuable and historic items had been sold last May at Christie's in London at a (€4.3m) sale jointly organised with Mealy's of Castlecomer with 120 lots titled 'Ireland's Secret Collection'. Probably the star attraction of that sale was a 7ft George II gilt wood overmantle once owned by the Maria Gunning, Countess of Coventry -- who died at the age of 27 from poisoning, believed to have been caused by her over-use of lead-based make-up -- which sold for €396,087, while a 'broth-bowl' dating from 1755 sold for €198,834. Both had been acquired by Mr Congreve from English stately homes before being brought to Waterford.

The description of Mount Congreve in media reports as 'the last Big House' has also provoked a lively discussion on the fate of great Irish houses still in private ownership.

Mount Congreve itself has no real architectural merit, but taken with its gardens, it could, and should, be one of the great tourist attractions of the south-east.

Two houses currently for sale, Bellamont Forest near Cootehill, Co Cavan, described by Mark Bence-Jones in A Guide to Irish Country Houses as "one of the most perfect examples of a Palladian villa", and Lyons Demesne, near Celbridge, Co Kildare, restored by the late aviation tycoon Tony Ryan at a cost of over a €100m, are far more qualified for the title of the last of the 'big houses'.

Ambrose Congreve's real legacy is not the now empty and barren 'Big House' which bears his name. It is the unique gardens he created in the demesne over the last half century which draw thousands of visitors from Ireland and abroad to Kilmeaden every year.

According to one source, the "sad thing about it all is that Ambrose Congreve went to his grave" without knowing that the future of his estate was secure.

A master plan was agreed in 2008 but discussions about its future are still ongoing.

The house and estate was vested in the Mount Congreve Trust in 1979 and the 66 acres of gardens will be transferred to the State when agreement is reached with the Office of Public Works. The mansion itself and a further five acres are due to pass to the State 50 years after the death of Ambrose Congreve -- when the country may once again be able to afford the upkeep of such treasures.

The future of the remaining 400-acre demesne remains in the hands of the Mount Congreve Trust which will benefit from the sale of the contents of Mount Congreve. According to local people, Ambrose Congreve "invested his entire inheritance" in the estate, which costs about €2m a year to run and currently generates little or no income. Some estimates put his in-vestment in Mount Congreve at €70m.

But for those who acquired a little bit of treasure from Mount Congreve last week, whether it is a case of good wine or a piece of porcelain, the fact that it came with a famous provenance is enough to ensure that it's a story they can dine out on for many years to come.

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