Tuesday 12 December 2017

Treasures... Uncorking true value

Ireland’s fine arts, antiques and collectables column

Ladies legs corkscrews might be worth €500
Ladies legs corkscrews might be worth €500
A Thomason corkscrew
Claret jug in the shape of an eagle

Eleanor Flegg

Last November an unusual corkscrew came up for auction on eBay. Of a version patented in 1839 by Charles Osborne, it sold without much delay for €22,410. There was just one other known example of an Osborne corkscrew in existence.

The very next day, a third Osborne corkscrew came up for auction in Colchester. It included a ratchet mechanism and an inscription that it was made with iron from the Old London Bridge, demolished in 1831. It sold for £40,000 (that's around €56,280).

The anonymous European collector forked out in full knowledge that the ratchet mechanism didn't actually work. That's how seriously corkscrew collectors take their corkscrews. "You'd have to be quite mad to pay 40 grand for a flipping corkscrew," says the antique dealer Roger Grimes.

But the passion for corkscrews does seem to drive collectors (they're known as helixophiles) to the brink of insanity.

Grimes remembers a fair in London, many years ago, where he spotted a dealer selling a corkscrew known as the 'London Rock', which was very rare at the time.

"I asked him how much it was and he told me it was £30. As he said it, another hand came down on top of mine and a voice said: 'I'll have that!' We nearly came to blows over it, but in the end the dealer let me have it. I sold it for £400."

The etiquette in this matter is as follows: if a dealer undervalues a piece, the buyer is not obliged to point this out; and if a buyer begins to negotiate a deal, they should not be interrupted or outbid. But the love of corkscrews incites strong emotions, possibly linked to the love of wine.

"The Bottle Scrue, whose Worth, whose Use

All Men confess, that love the Juice;

Forgotten sleeps the Man to whom

We oweth Invention, in his Tomb."

In a poem written around 1724, Nicholas Amhurst (1697-1742), lamented the fact that the inventor of the corkscrew has been lost in time.

Early wine bottles, loosely corked, didn't require a corkscrew - one could just pull the cork out with one's teeth - and the "useful Engine" that Amhurst so admired was probably of the basic t-shaped variety still used today.

The screw-like blade, known as the 'worm' was invented to remove stuck bullets from gun barrels. One of the more sought-after models of early folding corkscrew was made by the Irish manufacturer Copley.

It's a very simple ring pull - the type is known as a bow corkscrew - that folds over so that it can be carried around in your pocket. Find one of these in a box in the attic and you could be in luck.

"A Copley bow corkscrew made in steel could be worth €700 in perfect condition," says Peter Borrett, a corkscrew dealer in England. One in less-than-perfect nick could be worth as little as €70, which is probably still worth the price of postage. If in doubt, send a photo of the item to a reputable dealer.

From the end of the 18th century, the British took to corkscrew designing with vengeance. Their patented designs combined craftsmanship with industrial technology - it's no accident that the centres of corkscrew manufacture were Sheffield and Birmingham - but also drew on that typically English talent for making very complicated gadgets to perform a very simple task.

In 1795, the Reverend Samuel Henshall took out England's first corkscrew patent, closely followed by Sir Edward Thomason who, in 1802, patented an ingenious mechanism that incorporated male and female threads.

The design was updated several times and manufactured well into the 20th century. The Thomason (left) is Grimes' corkscrew of choice. "It's brilliant to use. You just screw the cap into the cork and keep turning it around. The one that I have was made by John Loach in 1844 and it has a bone handle with a brush to one side for brushing the dust off the cork before you draw it." The corkscrew costs €450.

It's relatively unlikely that many Irish homes will have a corkscrew of great value lurking in the kitchen drawer and those that are valuable probably don't look it. A nice old Henshall-type corkscrew could be worth a couple of hundred.

It's a direct-pull corkscrew in a t-shape with a button between the shank and the worm. The purpose of this is to loosen the bond between cork and bottle by compressing and turning the cork once the worm is in place. There are many variations on this type.

Fancy handles in bone, ivory and horn add to the value, as do inscriptions. Manufacturers often stamped their name on the corkscrew and this can help to identify and date them.

An inscribed Henshaw original would be a great find and worth around €1,000. Another model to look out for, the Rotary Eclipse, is a mounted corkscrew to be found on many an Irish bar and could be worth up to €1,000.

You don't have to be a helixophile to appreciate the saucy Ladies Legs corkscrews made in late 19th century Germany (they're also known as the 'Gay 90s' corkscrews). An undamaged 1890s original might be worth just under €500, although the versions made in 1970s Germany are also collectible.

The legs usually have celluloid thighs and striped stockings in various colours. You operate the corkscrew by pulling the legs apart. Just beware - this is how helixophiles get hooked.



In the salerooms


Michael Collins is well known as the most collectible figure in recent Irish history, and those with an interest in Collins memorabilia, may want to look in at Mealy's Mid-Summer Sale, which takes place next Wednesday.

The eclectic contents include an almost 30in bronze statue of The Big Fella in full military attire, holding a cane and on a plinth inscribed "Michael Collins 1890-1922".

The guide price is €1,500 to €2,500. Buyers in the market for a snooker table (and with a sizeable place to put one) may be interested in a full size Victorian mahogany snooker or billiard table, complete with Victorian scoreboard, cues and triangle, which is conservatively estimated between €1,500 and €2,500.

There are several other particularly large pieces. A 45ft long Donegal carpet in Irish royal blue with a central medallion with a harp and a crest of the four provinces inscribed, Mo Dia - Do Dia, Mo Tír - Do Tír (My God, Your God, My Land, Your Land) is estimated between €15,000 and €25,000.

The carpet was commissioned in the 1960s by the New Ireland Assurance company for their Dublin office and is a magnificent piece, although very much of its time, and comes with photographs of the weavers at work.

It requires a large indoor space just as a 19th century Irish cut granite fountain (€20,000 to €30,000) requires a large outdoor one.

The sale also includes a diverse selection of smaller (and cheaper) heirlooms, curios, and oddities including a moulded glass and gilt metal claret jug in the form of an eagle (below), all of which can be viewed on Sunday, July 12 from 12pm-5pm, and during working hours on Monday and Tuesday with full details on www.mealys.ie.


For those on the lookout for bangles and spangles, an auction of Fine Jewellery, Watches and Silverware will take place at O'Reilly's Auction Rooms, 126 Francis Street, Dublin, next Wednesday at 1pm.

The auction includes a number of bracelets, many of them antique pieces whose turn to be fashionable has come around once more.


Old documents, ranging from genealogies and maps to surveys, military documents and antique books sold well at an Antiquarian and Rare Book Auction, which took place at Oliver Usher Auction Rooms on 25 June.

The results included the sale of the Genealogy and Ensigns Armorial of The O'Dempsey Family for €2,600 and the Original Manuscript Ledger/Atlas of Beresford Estate (Carlow) (c. 1835) for €2,000.

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