Thursday 13 December 2018

Brooching the subject

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

Owl brooch
Owl brooch
Sea horse brooch
Wet Day

Eleanor Flegg

In July 1940, the Germans occupied Paris.

Many Parisians fled. Others endured humiliation and hardship. But, surprisingly, there was still a market for luxury items. "The big French jewellery houses did well during the war," says Claire-Laurence Mestrallet, jewellery specialist at Adam's. "There was plenty of money in occupied France, even if it wasn't the right kind of money."

During the occupation, a small brooch appeared in the window of Maison Cartier, Paris. It depicted a bird trapped in a golden cage.

The symbolism wasn't lost on the Nazis, who summoned Cartier's director of fine jewellery, Jeanne Toussaint, to account for herself.

Allegedly, Toussaint told the Nazis that the brooch was of a type that Cartier had always made.

The story was at least partially true. Cartier did make a lot of birds. In any case, the Nazis swallowed the story.

After the Liberation of Paris in 1944, another bird brooch appeared in Cartier's window. Made in coral, diamonds, and lapis lazuli, its colours echoed the French flag.

This time the cage door was open and the bird was poised for flight.

In 2014, Cartier reissued the design in various combinations of precious metals and stones, including a bird with an amethyst body and lapis lazuli wings in a pink gold cage.

The modern version was a pretty piece and cost in the region of €8,000, but lost something in translation. In those colours, it wouldn't have you bursting into La Marseillaise.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, animal and plant- themed jewellery began to take over from Art Deco's geometric forms.

A forerunner of the trend, a little diamond and ruby seahorse brooch (c.1935) (est. €2,500 to €3,000) is coming up for auction at Adam's sale of Fine Jewellery and Watches on September 19.

Mounted in platinum, the brooch is a lucky survivor.

"A lot of 1930s and 1940s jewellery was melted down," Mestrallet explains.

"After the war the Bank of France would not allow the selling of precious metals. If you wanted to have a piece of jewellery made you would have to provide the metal yourself and give 20pc to the French state."

By the 1950s, jewellery had become more flamboyant.

"People wanted to forget about the war. They didn't want to restrain themselves financially. Women began to wear modest jewellery during the day and more dramatic pieces at night. They liked to show their wealth," says Mestrallet.

A diamond and platinum bird brooch (c.1950) (est. €7,000 to €9,000) is a good example of the mid-century fashion for naturalistic statement pieces. The brooch is set with old brilliant and single-cut diamonds, mounted in platinum, with long swirling feathers and a ruby eye. Measuring 8.3 cm in length, it's a sizeable piece of jewellery but can be dismantled (carefully) by the user to form three separate brooches.

There's another, equally showy, piece of convertible jewellery in the sale: a diamond bracelet/brooch combination (c.1950) (est. €8,000 to €10,000).

It's geometric in design with a frontispiece of central old cushion-shaped diamonds and a series of graduating brilliant and baguette-cut diamonds set in either white gold or platinum.

The central part of the bracelet can be removed to form a brooch, but this is a delicate operation that would have to be undertaken by a jeweller.

During the 1950s, jewellery became three-dimensional, rather than flat.

Also at Adam's, a gem-set owl brooch (est. €4,500 to €5,500) dates from around 1960. This is a very engaging piece. It stands on a little branch, claws clasped around it, chest thrust forward and wings spread as if for take-off.

Its body is decorated with round cabochon citrines, brownish in colour; its crest is encrusted with diamonds and its eyes, owlishly ringed with a triple band of gold, are round staring rubies.

The craftsmanship, evident on the long wing feathers and hairy foot feathers, is exquisite. It was designed by Jean-Claude Champagnat (1923-1988), a French jeweller who also designed pieces for Christian Dior and Madame Grès.

At 5 cm long and 6.5 cm wide, the owl brooch is wearable, but only just.

"Most of the novelty brooches that we sell tend to go to collectors," says Mestrallet.

And not everyone likes owls. In many cultures, it's a bird of ill omen.

"My mother is from Slovenia and she says that if you dream of an owl it means that you will soon receive news that someone has passed away."

Irish barn owls, with their ghostly white faces and terrifying shrieks, were often mistaken for the banshee but elsewhere, in Japan for example, the owl is a good luck charm.

Bird and insect brooches from the 1980s also seem to be selling well at auction.

"Animals and insects have somewhat of a cult following," says Natasha Sherling of O'Reilly's.

Their most recent auction, on August 30, saw a 1980s flamingo brooch for €2,100, well exceeding its upper estimate. The design echoed that of the famous Cartier brooch designed by Jeanne Toussaint for Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, in 1940.

The original sold at Sotheby's for £1,721,250 (€2,041,403) in 2010.

Viewing at Adam's takes place on September 16 and 17 from 1pm to 5pm; on Monday from 10 am to 5 pm; and Tuesday 19 September 19 from 10 am to 4 pm, prior to the auction which begins at 6pm.

See See also and

In the Salerooms

De Vere's

Wet Day

"It pissed the whole time, so he must think Connemara is hell," wrote the artist Gerard Dillon to his friend Bernard Smith. Their mutual acquaintance, Arthur Rose, had endured a soggy visit to the west.

That was around 1950. It was a time when Dillon was in Connemara, painting locals, livestock and landscape in the gaps between the showers. Dillon's A Wet Day (above, est. €20,000 to €30,000), is one of the paintings for sale at De Vere's Irish Art Auction, this September 20. It shows a mother walking her barefoot children down a bog road in the lashing rain, her wool cloak spread to shelter them. All you can see of the kids is their little bare legs. It's sympathetic, funny, and closely observed.

There are two Connemara ponies to the side of the road. Dillon had noticed the type at a pony show in Clifden and described them in his letter to Dillon: "such unusual colours - smoky grey as you get out of a chimney - the oaken meal colour, it was wonderful". The auction also includes a painting by Richard Thomas Moynan, best known for the famous Military Manoeuvers at the National Gallery (it shows children playing). The painting at de Vere's A Muted Appeal - The Little Match Girl (est. €6,000 to €9,000) shows a street vendor who's had a hard day. The model for the portrait was a flower seller who worked on Chatham Street, and the doorway may well be that of Neary's Pub. Other paintings of interest in the sale include Gathering Beans, by Arthur David McCormick (est. €4,000 to €6,000). De Vere's Irish Art Auction takes place at the Royal College of Physicians, 6 Kildare Street, Dublin 2, on September 20 at 6pm, with viewing at Veres Gallery, 35 Kildare Street, Dublin 2, from September 16. See

Antiques & Vintage Fairs

The Wells House and Gardens Antiques Fair will take place at Wells House, County Wexford, on September 16, 17. The fair runs from 1pm to 5 pm both days. Alongside the fair, expect a series of demonstrations by experts who restore paintings and furniture

This part of the event is curated by Chantal Fortune, antique dealer, who has just become the first Irish member of Antiques Young Guns (AYG).

This is an international organisation, formed to support young (aged 39 and under) professionals within the wider antiques industry.

Entry to the fair is €3 per person and there is an €8 entry fee per car to the grounds of Wells House, which is on the R741 between Gorey and Wexford.


Dates for the diary include Hibernian Antique Fairs' Cork National Antiques Fair, which takes place at the International Hotel, Cork Airport, September 30 to October 1.

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