Tuesday 21 November 2017

Treasures: The ultimate post collection

Ireland’s fine arts, antiques and collectables column

An old Irish postcard feature cabbage vendors.
An old Irish postcard feature cabbage vendors.
Newbridge train station features on an old Irish postcard.
A postcard of the shop Johnston and Sons in Kinvara.
Portrait of a Lady with a Large Hat (and a twinkle in her eye) by Charlotte Blakeney Ward.

Eleanor Flegg

AT the beginning of the last century you could invite someone for tea that very day, just by sending a postcard. If you caught the early post, the card would be delivered by noon and you'd receive the reply in time to make the scones. Postcards were a quick and reliable way of sending informal messages. Now, if you send a postcard home from your holidays, it's likely to arrive long after you do.

In many ways, postcards were the early 20th-century equivalent of the SMS. In 1908, a rugby supporter travelled to Belfast to see the Irish team play Wales in the Home Nations Championship. He purchased a postcard of each team. After the match he wrote "Winners" on the Welsh card and "Losers" on the Irish card and posted them both back to Dublin. Presumably, the postcards arrived home before he did.

Now, you'd just send a text. The message would arrive instantly but it would leave no trace in the material world. It certainly wouldn't be mounted in an album to give someone a laugh more than a hundred years later.

Almost everybody has a stack of old postcards somewhere around the house. The bad news is that generally speaking they're not worth very much, no matter how old they are. However in themed collections, that is themed by location or subject matter, they can produce a fair price - between €100 and €1,000 when they catch the interest of the right people - as evidenced by a forthcoming postcard sale at Whytes.

Postcards were invented in the late 1860s and introduced by the British government in 1871 as a plain piece of cardboard with an imprinted halfpenny stamp. The Post Office's monopoly was short lived and, by 1872, publishers were permitted print their own plain postcards and send them to Inland Revenue to be franked. In 1894 one was allowed to apply one's own stamp and, by 1902, to write the address and the message on the same side of the card. The era of the picture postcard had begun.

The earliest Irish decorative postcards carried advertising. Cards promoting the activities of the Dublin & Wicklow Manure Company were reputedly among the earliest, although I have sadly been unable to find any examples. They were shortly followed by view cards, showing Ireland's scenic spots. In the world of deltiology (postcard collecting) these are known as topographical cards and most early Irish postcards fall into this category.

Deltiology is almost as old as the postcard itself and historic collections can sometimes be very valuable. Collectors tend to follow a specific line of interest, often verging on obsession.

In tomorrow's auction at Whyte's, The Eclectic Collector, a lot comprising five albums of postcards and photographs of trams is estimated to sell between €800 and €1,200. The albums were amassed by Walter Clark of Dublin's Goldsmith Street, who was clearly a bit of an anorak. There are trams from Dublin, Belfast, and a whole album devoted to the Hill of Howth Tramway. A rare and relatively valuable postcard of College Green during the first anniversary of the Easter Rising is included. Why? Because it has a tram in it. There is also a postcard showing the interior of the repair shed which is, presumably, the equivalent of porn for tram-spotters.

As a hobby, deltiology has a lot going for it. Vintage postcards are available in every antiques and vintage fair around the country and most of them only cost a few euro. The way that the cards are valued has a few interesting quirks. While cards in pristine condition are generally more valuable, some collectors prefer cards that have been posted. The postmark dates them effectively and the messages written on the cards add a further layer of interest. Most postcard messages are every bit as dull as 21st-century text messages, but there's always the chance of finding a gem.

A bustling crowded street scene is more valuable than an empty one and postcards showing public transport are more valuable when they show a close-up shot. If a historic postcard of a bus in O'Connell Street is worth €3, the same bus in the middle distance would be worth €10. Zoom in so that the bus fills the postcard, and the price might soar to €30. Similarly, a street scene showing a shop front will be worth less than a close-up of the shop, showing the signage and preferably with the proud shopkeeper outside.

A postcard of the shop Johnston and Sons in Kinvara ticks all the boxes for this type of card. Not only does it show the signage but also the wares as bales of báinín are stacked on a crate outside the shop along with tin pails and scíobs and coats and a woman with her childer all in white pinafore dresses. It's part of a lot of 47 postcards of County Galway estimated to sell at Whyte's between €180 and €220.

These, along with 125 similar lots of postcards, come from the collection of Peter Holder, film maker and founder member of the Irish Film Guild. He started the collection so that he could study and accurately reproduce period scenes in Ireland in film although it seems that the thrill of deltiology also played its part.

Most of the cards show Irish scenes between 1900 and 1920, with some from the 1930 to 1960 period, and they are divided geographically into small lots of around 40 cards. Most of the guide prices start around €100 or €150, with some lots estimated between €50 and €70 although, the auctioneers warn, action on the day of sale could be unpredictable. A truly dedicated collector might pay up to €1,000 to fill a gap in their collection.

The postcards themselves are like a window back in time. They range from royal visits to railway stations and from spectacular vistas to empty streets: fish markets, cabbage sellers and turf-laden donkeys, and Galway's Eyre Square crowded with cattle on market day.

No scene was too mundane, no part of Ireland too remote, and no job too menial. Looking at the collection, it appears that there was very little in early 20th-century Ireland that didn't end up on a postcard. You might even find your granny in there if she stopped walking for long enough back in the day.

The Eclectic Collector takes place at Whyte's this Saturday 13 June at 11 am with full details on www.whytes.ie

In the salerooms


Adam's Sunday Interiors auction takes place on Sunday 14 June at 11.30am with the accustomed mixture of period magnificence and potential bargains.

At the upper end of the scale an imposing gentleman's writing desk, attributed to William Vile and made in the reign of George II, is probably destined for the office of one of the more intimidating professions.

The serpentine-fronted mahogany desk is estimated to sell between €18,000 and €22,000. There are also many pieces of furniture that would challenge the high street in value: two Victorian walnut framed armchairs (€300 to €500) are currently upholstered in a stripy fabric that could easily be replaced.

There is also a Morpheus-style Victorian red leather button back armchair with a mahogany frame (€500 to €800) and a near-pair of early 20th-century brass reading lamps with shell scallop shades (€200 to €400).

Paintings include Portrait of a Lady with a Large Hat (and a twinkle in her eye) by Charlotte Blakeney Ward (pictured, €600 to €1,000) and, among the ceramics, an 18th-century double chamber scent bottle in the shape of a monkey with an infant on its back. You access the perfume by detaching their heads. It comes with a porcelain parrot scent bottle of similar ilk, the ensemble estimated between €800 and €1,200. Full details are on www.adams.ie.


In the early 1970s, the artist Maurice MacGonigal (1900-1979), then living in Mulhuddart, set out to paint his way around the changing landscape of County Dublin.

Poppintree, once home to cattle, piebald ponies and travelling circuses (but now occupied by Ikea) was the subject of his Campsite, Poppintree, North County Dublin. The painting goes up for sale next Tuesday at DeVere's Irish Art Auction with a guide price of €10,000 to €15,000.

It is accompanied by several other pieces in the fine Irish tradition of equine art, including Pony in a Connemara Garden by Gerard Dillon (€30,000 to €40,000) and the more contemporary Horse Fair at Goresbridge by Peter Curling (€20,000 t0 €25,000).

In the mid-range price bracket, Fergal Lyons Fair Green, Ballinasloe is estimated to sell between €1,500 and €2,000 and Ivan Sutton's, Ballinasloe Horse Fair, County Galway between €1,200 and €1,600. A bronze head, Red Rum by Enzo Plazotta is estimated from €1,000 to €1,500.

The sale takes place on 16 June at Buswells Hotel at 6 pm with full details on www.deveres.ie.

Antiques and Vintage Fairs

This weekend promises much in the way of antiques and vintage fairs around the country. The Tralee Antique Fair will take place at Fels Point Hotel on Sunday 14 June with 25 stands from dealers in antique and vintage wares. It's hosted by Hibernian Antique Fairs, contactable on robinodon@gmail.com.

At the other side of the country, the Antiques Fair at the Royal Marine Hotel, Dun Laoghaire, also takes place on 14 June. Here too, traders from all over Ireland will bring bits and bobs that range from serious furniture to vintage linen.

A period collection of leather luggage includes a fully-fitted man's leather travelling case, but there will also be the usual selection of rare coins, books and art. The fair is open 11am until 6pm and admission costs €3.50 with full details on www.vintageireland.eu.

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