Friday 6 December 2019

Why Michael Collins' cane trumps Padraig Pearse's letters

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables columns

Michael Collins with his cane
Michael Collins with his cane
The cane that purportedly belonged to Michael Collins

Eleanor Flegg

Imagine this scenario. Someone comes in to an auction house, proudly flourishing a walking stick. It's obviously old, but otherwise unremarkable.

"This walking stick belonged to Michael Collins!" its owner declares. The auctioneer looks dubious (but inside his heart is going pit-a-pat). Could this really be Mick's stick? He weighs the walking stick in his hands. It's made of rosewood, roughly mounted with silver at the tip. There's no signature, no plaque, and nothing that sets it apart from others of its kind. "How did you come by it?" he asks.

In the hierarchy of nationalist collectability, Michael Collins is top of the pile. Next comes Padraig Pearse. Then, since collectability is no respecter of chronology, Daniel O'Connell. After that, in no particular order, James Connolly, Charles Stuart Parnell, Tom Clarke and Countess Markievicz. Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone are highly sought-after, but objects associated with them are so rare that they can't be considered collectible.

Michael Collins had it going on. He was good-looking and charismatic. He had energy, drama, and romance. He smoked and drank and cursed. He died tragically, before his time. His historical impact was immense. Anything that he has breathed on, let alone owned, is rare, interesting, and valuable. A rosewood and silver-mounted walking cane, previously belonging to Michael Collins, 36¼ins high (92cm) (Lot 84: est €2,000 to €4,000) is coming up for sale at de Vere's Irish Art Auction on November 26. It is sold with a letter of provenance from the vendor.

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The cane that purportedly belonged to Michael Collins
The cane that purportedly belonged to Michael Collins

In the lingo of auctioneering, the provenance of an object is its history: where it came from, who owned it, and where it may have been exhibited or sold. It always has a bearing on the interest of a piece and, sometimes, on its value. A beautifully crafted piece of silver or an exquisite painting may be valuable in their own right, even if nobody knows the story behind them. A walking stick? Not so much. This one, without provenance, might be worth between €80 and €100.

With walking sticks, it's about the story. In April 2016, a walking stick that once belonged to Padraig Pearse (est €400 to €600) went under the hammer at Adam's Easter 1916 History Sale. It sold for €1,300. This walking stick was catalogued as follows: "A plain varnished cane walking stick with curved head, approx 33ins tall, with a carbon copy of a typed letter from MW O'Reilly to a Miss Heffernan of Leicester Avenue, Rathgar, 9 September 1969, acknowledging receipt of the Walking Stick of Padraig Pearse's which you were kind enough to present me with."

That letter was all that the auctioneers had in terms of provenance, and nobody knew who Miss Heffernan was, or how she had come by the walking stick.

MW O'Reilly was a different matter. He was a veteran of 1916, had fought beside Pearse in the GPO, and survived to become head of New Ireland Assurance. The walking stick remained in his collection. It was decided that if the word of the unknown Miss Heffernan was good enough for MW O'Reilly, it was good enough for posterity, and so it was agreed that the walking stick could be sold as one that had belonged to Padraig Pearse. Without the letter, its value would have been next to nothing. Provenance is not an exact science. Sometimes, the provenance of an object is sufficiently watertight to stand up in court. This comes into play when establishing the identity of forged, altered or stolen goods. More often, provenance is an accumulation of clues that add up to a believable story.

In the case of the walking stick at de Vere's, it's a good one. It was owned by Collins' driver, Jack McCormack. Collins gave him the walking stick when McCormack was shot in the leg and hand at Red Cow (a location outside Dublin later known for its roundabout) around 1921.

The exact date is unknown. McCormack's granddaughter, Sinead, inherited the walking stick. There is a photo, published in de Vere's catalogue, of Collins using a walking stick. It's not the one in the sale, but similar in style.

"Sinead told me that her grandfather never spoke about the war," says Rory Guthrie, auctioneer with de Vere's. "He never mentioned Collins, or the walking stick, and it was only when he was a very old man that the story came to light."

It was a chance remark, but one that gives the story an emotional resonance. In 1921, when McCormack was shot, the Irish Republican Army was more or less united against the British forces with Collins as their director of intelligence.

By August 1922, Collins was dead; shot and ambushed by the opposing Irish faction in a Civil War that fractured the country. The Civil War left deep and enduring wounds. It divided communities, split families and destroyed friendships. McCormack was not the only one who didn't want to talk about it.

For this reason, the Irish Civil War (1922-23) is unlikely to release such a feverish buying and selling of memorabilia as the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Many people will have taken their stories to the grave.

De Vere's Irish Art Auction takes place at The Royal College of Physicians, No 6 Kildare Street, Dublin 2, on Tuesday November 26 at 6pm (see deveres.ie)

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