Friday 20 April 2018

Treasures: Sitting on a small fortune

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

A good paint job increases the value of a tractor seat
A good paint job increases the value of a tractor seat
Yeat's Hobby Horses

Eleanor Flegg

Few people in Ireland are more than a couple of generations away from the land, and the love of a good tractor is close to the heart of the nation.

Around the country there's a huge amount of expertise in restoring vintage farm machinery, but not everyone has the space, or the skill, for this time-consuming hobby.

Old cast iron seats gleaned from tractors and other farm machines offer an affordable way of connecting to the vintage tractor vibe, whether you hang them on the wall or transform them into 21st century seating.

"A lot of people have fond memories of the first tractor arriving on the farm and replacing the horse," says Thomas Heavey of Irish Vintage Scene.

"The holy grail is what they call a 'barn find' or discovering one of these early vehicles in a ditch. Then comes the search for parts. The biggest part of the hobby is getting them working again. They were used and abused in fairness. As pieces fell off them, they were left fallen off them, so it's great to see them being restored. Most collectors will do the restoration themselves and the quality of the work is phenomenal."

The Fergusons and the Fords are the most popular with collectors. People like the Porsche and Steyr tractors too but it's harder to get parts," says Heavey. In 1917, when the first Fordson tractor rolled off the assembly line at Henry Ford and Son Ltd in Cork, there were around 70 tractors in Ireland. By 1939, this had risen to 2,000. It's safe to assume almost all were Fordsons.

The son of an Irish immigrant, Henry Ford decided to establish a tractor-manufacturing plant in his father's native county, but few Irish farmers were in a position to mechanise. Most of the tractors manufactured by Ford & Son Ltd, Cork, from 1919-1923 and 1928-1933 were exported to Europe.

Meanwhile, the Northern Irish aviator Harry Ferguson had been working on his designs for a lightweight tractor, suitable for hilly Irish farms, which went into production in 1937.

Today the cast iron seats of vintage farm machinery are collectible in their own right.

The Summer Chatsworth Fine Art Sale at Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers in Castlecomer this July included a collection of 100 tractor seats from Ireland, Europe and America. Most of these dated from the early to mid 20th century, generally considered to have been the Golden Age of tractors, but there were a few earlier models such as an early Hornsby wooden and metal seat, painted red, yellow and blue, together with a wooden handle mechanism dating from the 1890s.

The collection also included a tractor seat from Henry Ford & Son, Cork, painted in blue with the lettering picked out in yellow (it sold for €310), and a rare Fordson (bidding stopped at €320).

The collection came from a gentleman farmer in the midlands. "He's in his 80s and still actively farming," says George Fonsie Mealy. "When a known collection like this comes up it generates a lot of interest among other collectors. They know the pieces are going to be genuine."

Although tractor seats can sell for up to €1,500, with specialist collectors vying to fill the gaps in their collections, the recent sale turned up no surprises. Most of the seats were guided between €120 and €300, with few of them exceeding their estimate.

Unlike other collectibles, which are considered spoilt by a lick of paint, a nice paint job adds to the value of a tractor seat. The painting highlights the marks of the foundries which are often incorporated into the design.

Recently some of the seats were bought by people who convert them into kitchen seating. "They seem to mould themselves to you," says Fonsie Mealy.

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In the salerooms


The Galway Antiques Art & Vintage Fair will take place in the Ardulain Hotel, Taylors Hill, Galway on Sunday, August 30.

Although a relatively modest affair with just 25 stands, it is significant in that it marks the first Hibernian Antiques Fair to take place in Galway for the past 25 years. Doors open from 11am-6pm.

This will be followed by the very much larger Cork National Antique Art & Vintage Fair at Clayton Silver Springs Hotel, Tivoli on September 12&13 where an estimated 60 dealers will display their wares.

In a bid to attract more young adults to the fair, the organisers are offering four weekend tickets for €10 (the standard entry is €5).

"We seem to be missing out a bit on the 18 to 45 year olds," says Robin O'Donnell. "For our future and the future of our business in Ireland, we need this audience to catch the bug now."


Jack B Yeats provided the top lot at Dolan's Connemara Art Auction, which took place in Clifden during the August bank holiday weekend. Yeats' Hobby Horses (1927) sold for €121,000, far exceeding the upper estimate of €85,000.

The painting, which evokes his much earlier watercolour, Man On A Merry-Go-Round (1897), reflects the artist's lifelong interest in fairgrounds.

Other paintings by well-known Irish artists, and often with subject matter of Irish interest, also sold well - a charcoal drawing of islanders in negotiation, Na Fir An Oilean by Sean Keating sold for €10,500 (the upper estimate was €8,000).

Gerard Dillon's Blue Jug And Easel sold for €11,000; Headland by Donald Hamilton Fraser sold for €9,900; and Kenneth Webb's Moonlight In Galway for €9,500.

Coastal Blue by Donald Teskey sold for €7,000, and The Mall Castlebar by Harry Kernoff sold for €9,000, as did Tony O'Malley's Sea Studio.


Events like Sheppard's forthcoming Attic Sale tend to see some exceptional value on show. These feature works of art from the attics, stables and storerooms of their important clients.

That is, if you fancy a stuffed stoat (estimated between €100 and €150), a 19th century brass cartridge-maker (€50 to €80), or a regimental drum (€80 to €120). There are some lovely pieces amidst the oddities: a 19th century Irish ruby glass and crystal oil lamp (€150 to €250), and all manner of Persian carpets, none of them estimated above €300.

The lots will be on public view at Sheppard's, The Square, Durrow, Co Laois from August 29-31, 10am-5pm, and the auction itself starts on Tuesday, September 1, at 11am. Full details on

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