Treasures: A grand way to strike a chord
Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column
There are some things you shouldn't buy on impulse. Grand pianos are top of the list. But it's hard to resist a bargain. When Seamus Moran, auction enthusiast and amateur pianist, saw a Bluthner grand piano at Herman & Wilkinson's auction rooms last November, his first thought was that he wouldn't be able to afford it.
"I played it and it sounded really nice so I thought that it would go for a fortune," he says. Moran didn't attend the auction in person, but he kept track of the bidding online. When bidding on the piano stopped at €200, he placed a bid. "The other bidder dropped out at €260 and I was the proud owner of a grand piano!" The total cost, including fees, was €325.
Once the excitement died down, Moran realised that he hadn't really thought this through. The main problem was that he had no fixed abode. None of his friends had room for an extra piano. Especially not a parlour grand piano that measured seven foot from the keyboard to the end. He talked a friend, a professional pianist, into trying out the piano. "I thought that if it was a real dud I might just leave it for the next auction," he says. But the expert opinion was this was a good piano, although it needed a bit of work, and was well worth keeping.
"It was a beautiful piano, in great condition and from a good maker, but the bidders were put off by the size," says Ross Ó Súilleabháin, auctioneer at Herman & Wilkinson.
In the same auction, a Hopkinson of London baby grand piano in a mahogany case, sold for €1,650. "The Bluthner was a better piano and in better condition but the bidder on the Hopkinson piano was unable to bid on the Bluthner because of its size."
For Moran, the next challenge was hiring a mover. All pianos need to be moved by professionals, who will charge according to the size of the instrument and the distance travelled. Hanway Haulage, for example, would charge around €150 to move an upright piano from a Dublin auction room to an address in the city. Moving a grand piano (they need to be secured by a specialist inside and out) would cost at least twice that.. But it's worth hiring a mover who knows what they're doing.
"As it turned out, Hanway Haulage had transported the piano into the auction rooms and they knew a bit about its history," Moran explains. Unsurprisingly, the piano had come from a very large house.
Moran's piano was relocated to temporary accommodation in the north Dublin suburbs. All pianos need tuning after being moved, and this one also required minor repairs, costing around €450. He has no regrets. "There's something glamorous about a grand piano - they're impressive pieces of furniture - but they're also pretty loud. You feel that you shouldn't be playing one in a suburban semi after 10pm!"
Not all grand pianos sell this cheaply. In September 2016, Herman & Wilkinson had sold a similar Bluthner grand piano for €2,200. Upright pianos, of course, are much cheaper and far more widespread (grands generally, but not always, give better control and a faster action).
Many of those that come on the auction circuit are Victorian. "Some of them are superb quality with a level of attention to detail in the case that you don't find in a modern piano," Ó Súilleabháin explains. "You get mahogany cases, sometimes with inlay, and the quality of the wood and the joinery is fantastic. The makers didn't cut any corners." In Victorian times, a piano was a big investment. "People would have paid a lot of money for them - around three times what they would have spent on a dining table and chairs. " On average, people now pay between €1,000 and €2,000 for a decent quality antique grand piano at auction, and between €400 and €800 for an upright.
While an antique piano is a beautiful piece of furniture, it will never be as even to play as a modern one (these come up at auction too), and it won't take kindly to rapid variations in temperature. Old pianos are best placed away from radiators and underfloor heating. They may also be suffering internally from wear and tear. Victorian pianos took a pounding.
"If you had one, you played it every single day!" Ó Súilleabháin says. "People used them as a way of showing off their children."
A piano by a famous maker will always be more valuable and one of the most famous, especially in an Irish context, is William Southwell (1736-1825). By the 1770s, he was making pianos and harpsichords in Dublin. At the time, both instruments were equally popular and it wasn't a foregone conclusion that one would come to dominate the other. Later, Southwell moved to London and became known as an inventor as well as a maker. His innovations - the "dolly" or Irish dampers and extending the compass (the number of notes) on square pianos - were patented in 1794 and became the industry standard across Europe. He also played a major role in developing the upright piano.
In September 2017, an Irish George III inlaid mahogany and satinwood square piano made by Southwell sold at Adam's Townley Hall auction for €4,000.
See hermanwilkinson.ie, adams.ie, pianomove.ie
In the Salerooms
"I drink a great deal. I sleep a little, and I smoke cigar after cigar. That is why I am in 200pc form," said Sir Winston Churchill. This doesn't work for everyone, but the person who buys the cigar that Churchill gave to his publisher, Sir Walter Newman Flower of Cassel & Co, probably isn't going to smoke it. The cigar (est €1,000 to €1,500) is coming up for sale at Whyte's Eclectic Collector Auction tomorrow. It's a Don Joaquin Habana - the picture of the maker on the label reminded Churchill of a mafia don - and was presented when Churchill, an accomplished bricklayer, laid the foundation stone for Cassel's new offices in 1956. The sale also includes Flower's presentation set of Churchill's The Second World War (est €800 to €1,200), a history in six volumes. Viewing from 10am to 5pm today and the sale begins tomorrow at 11am, at Freemason's Hall, Molesworth Street, Dublin 2. See whytes.ie
The English pop artist, Sir Peter Blake, is best known for his design for the cover of the Beatles' album, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). He created the artwork for the album with the American pop artist, Jann Haworth, who was married to him at the time. Dating from the same year, Blake's screenprint on metal, Babe Rainbow (est €1,000 to €1,200, pictured), is coming up for sale at Dolan's first summer auction on Sunday, beginning at 2pm. The marquee sale will be held at Kelly's Hotel, Rosslare Strand, Co Wexford, with antique furniture, silver, rugs, books, and a nice looking rocking horse (est €1,200 to €1,600). Paintings in the sale include Nassau Blair Browne's pastoral oil-on-canvas, Cattle in the Meadow (est €5,000 to €7,000). The Kilkenny-born artist was well known for his paintings of animals and was Governor of the National Gallery of Ireland from 1918 to 1924. Viewing continues until Sunday. See dolansart.com.
Adam's auction of fine jewellery and watches takes place at its Stephen's Green salesroom on May 15 at 6pm with potential highlights including a glamorous 1950s sapphire and diamond bracelet (€60,000 to €80,000). The sapphires in the piece come from Sri Lanka, also known as "the island of jewels". Other pieces of historical interest include a signed agate and gold cameo brooch (est €1,500 to €2,500). It comes from the workshop of Pietro Girometti (1811-1859), a Italian gem-engraver and medallist. The agate is carved to depict the bust of goddess Artemis, within a scrolling openwork gold frame and mounted in 18K gold. See adams.ie.
Antiques & Collectors Fairs
The annual AVA Antique & Collectors Fair in Killyhevlin Hotel, Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh will take place on Monday from 11am to 5pm. Expect furniture, jewellery, art, silver, porcelain, vintage accessories, books, ephemera, lamps, clocks, glass, advertising and curios. Admission is £2 and children go free.