Friday 24 May 2019

Treasures: From collecting copper to gathering up Cartier

Ireland’s Fine Arts, antiques and collectables column

An Art Deco bracelet
An Art Deco bracelet
Art Deco pendant made by Cartier

Eleanor Flegg

They called him the "King of Copper". Alfred Chester Beatty (1875-1968) was an American engineer who began his working life as a labourer in the mines of Denver, Colorado.

He soon established his own mining consultancy and succeeded in making his fortune.

By 1907, aged 32, he was a millionaire.

Chester Beatty also had an extraordinary collector's eye - an instinct for finding fine objects - and the money to buy them.

He travelled in Egypt, China and Japan, amassing a world-famous collection of books and manuscripts. In 1950, he retired to Ireland, declaring: "It will be pleasanter to drink a glass of Irish beer in a Dublin garden than to spend the rest of my life buying fountain pens and filling in forms."

He built a house for his library on Shrewsbury Road and opened it to the public in 1954.

Around that time, he met the poet Lady Powerscourt, Sheila Wingfield (1906-1992).

On September 26, two unusual pieces of jewellery will go on sale at Bonhams Fine Jewellery Auction. Both were gifted to Wingfield by Chester Beatty in the 1950s. The first is an Art Deco pendant made by Cartier around 1925 (est. €22,000 to €33,000).

It is made from a Chinese plaque in ice jade, probably late 19th-century, carved with various lucky motifs including a double fish and a knot and, on the reverse, Chinese characters translate as "blessings come from blessings". Because the piece is signed, we know that it was made into a pendant by Cartier, Paris.

We even know, from the workshop mark, that the jeweller who worked on it was called Renault (nothing to do with the car).

His job was to convert a piece of jade - it's nice but you wouldn't really know what to do with it - into a fashionable piece of Art Deco jewellery.

He did so by suspending it from an articulated circular plaque decorated with undulating lines of diamonds and onyx.

It's a coherent piece, despite its mixed heritage, and measures 7.3 cm in length.

The second piece, also gifted to Wingfield by Chester Beatty, is catalogued as "an Art Deco hardstone seal, gem-set and enamel jewel, French, circa 1930 (est. €45,000 to €67,000)." It was probably made by Cartier but, since it's not signed, can't be advertised as such. Like the pendant, it's a conversion of artwork from a different culture. Now, it's a bracelet but was probably first designed as a shoulder ornament.

It is made from five chalcedony seals, each engraved with a Qur'anic script.

The Islamic pieces look at home in their Art Deco context.

They are made of chalcedony, a type of quartz that comes in many colours, with each seal framed by black enamel, and connected by black enamel and rose-cut diamond circular links.

The green and red beads between links are emeralds and rubies.

The gift of valuable jewellery from a man to a woman who is not his wife raises two obvious questions.

The first is: were they lovers? And the second: is that anybody else's business? If they were, they may have wanted it kept private.

"They were friends," says Kieran Boyle of Bonhams Ireland, firmly.

"She helped him to catalogue his collection and their friendship would have meant a lot to her.

"She kept the pieces until she died and they remained in her family by direct descent."

One thing's certain. Although the pieces were commissioned by Chester Beatty, they were not made with Wingfield in mind.

The jewellery dates from the 1920s and 30s, and Chester Beatty did not meet Sheila Wingfield until 1952.

His wife, Edith Dunn Beatty, died that same year and it is possible that the jewellery was originally made for her. What is clear, from the value and the personal nature of the gifts, is that he held Wingfield in very high regard.

Bonhams Fine Jewellery Auction takes place on September 26 in London, see The Chester Beatty Library is now located in Dublin Castle and is open to the public. See

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