'This is the best auction I was never at!" messages Philip Sheppard, auctioneer. He's on his sofa, self-isolating after a last-ditch flight home from Boston. I'm at my home-office desk in Dublin with several screens in front of me. On one, I'm flicking through Sheppard's digital catalogue. On the other, I'm watching his cousin Michael Sheppard in action on the rostrum in Durrow, Co Laois.
The auction in question is the O'Mahony Collection, described in the catalogue as "a diverse range of works of art from across the globe". Michael Sheppard is a showman, in his own quiet way, but this time he's playing to an empty room.
I'm sensing a fair amount of brinkmanship in the auctioneers' decision to go ahead with the sale as scheduled on March 24. Concerns about Covid-19 were mounting and government guidelines changing by the day. Postponement was an option - many Irish auction houses had already elected to put their sales on hold - but this particular collection was of international interest and bidders from abroad were registering in good numbers.
It was decided that the auction would go ahead behind closed doors. There would be nobody in the room except the auctioneer and his assistants, and there was no opportunity to physically view the objects in advance of the sale. Viewing is a germy business. It involves handling things, breathing on them and passing them from one person to another. But it does give the bidder a sense of the object that is very hard to get from a photograph.
I imagine that anxieties ran high. Would telephone and internet bidding be sufficient to carry the auction? And would people be prepared to bid for objects that they had only seen in the catalogue? The collection was one-of-a-kind. It was amassed by Tim O'Mahony, now aged 93, over a lifetime and reflects an obsession with quality.
This made for an interesting sale, but one that was hard to categorise as many of the objects had nothing in common with each other, apart from that they had caught the collector's eye. A portable 'secret' chalice from the time of the Penal Laws (Lot 214: est €100 to €150) sat alongside a Mughal harem scene painted on ivory (Lot 44: est €500 to €800).
"The collection bounced around all over the place," Philip Sheppard says. "He didn't have a theme. He would be beguiled by the object and then he would buy it."
Back in the auction room, Michael Sheppard is performing to the camera. Usually, the auctions at Sheppard's are punctuated by a bit of repartee with the regulars. There's usually a local character in the audience and the auctioneer is not above having a dig at them. This time, he's playing it straight. In a way, it's like bluescreen acting and quite the spectator sport.
"I have friends back in the US who listen to the auctions in the background, while they're doing other things," Michael says later. "They find it soothing."
But entertainment is not its primary purpose. The auctioneers' job is to sell things on behalf of their clients for the highest possible price.
From the first, it seems that the saints are smiling on the auction. A pair of Italian-school oil paintings of female saints dating from the 16th or 17th century (Lot 1: est €600 to €900) sells for €2,700.
My phone bleeps again as Philip sends me a video clip of Sinead Creegan manning the phone bidding, a receiver in each hand. It's captioned "Super woman!" Usually there are several people allocated to phone bidding but they were asked to stay at home, to keep the number of people in the room low.
Creegan's capacity for multi-tasking is impressive, especially with a competing bidder in each ear.
Many of the lots carry estimates in the low hundreds. A group of four Italian-school watercolours of architectural scenes, united in a single frame (Lot 186: est €200 to €300) doesn't look much to the untutored eye but at least two bidders think otherwise. The bids climb steadily until the hammer falls at €2,400.
A little earlier, an unexceptional late 18-century Italian school painting of figures in a piazza (Lot 131: est €800 to €1,200) sold for €2,000. The secret chalice fetches €1,400 and, towards the end of the auction, a 19th-century bronze sculpture of a pig (Lot 397: est €200 to €300) sells for €2,000.
The top lot, less surprisingly, is a painting by Daniel O'Neill (Lot 481: est €4,000 to €6,000) which fetches €8,500. In total, 82pc of the lots are sold, which is well within the standard strike rate for a regular old-fashioned attendance auction at Sheppard's premises.
This is one of the instances where globalisation works a treat. The objects are now being packaged for delivery to addresses in Ireland, the UK, America, Russia, Korea, Hong Kong, China and India. "Yaroslavl!" Philip muses. "We've never sent anything there before."
The collection of objects gathered from all over the world is, once again, dispersed across the globe. Some of them will return to their country of origin and others will embark on further adventures.