Saturday 16 December 2017

Treasures: Ancient beast's antlers to lure deer hunters

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

Great Irish Elk skeleton
Great Irish Elk skeleton
The 'Great Irish Elk' antlers for sale at the Fonsie Mealy auction.
Large Megaloceros Giganteus (Irish elk) compared to 1.8m tall person.
Venetian painting: On The Lagoon, Venice.

Writing in 1697, Dr Thomas Molyneux was the first to publish a description of the animal erroneously known as the Great Irish Elk. The beast in question was neither an elk nor exclusively Irish. It was simply a very large deer. "Nature herself seems, by the vast magnitude and stately horns she has given this creature, to have singled it out as it were, and showed it such regard, with a design to distinguish it remarkably from the common herd of all other small quadrupeds," he wrote.

The giant deer (Megaloceros giganteus) has been extinct for more than 10,000 years. It stood two metres tall at the shoulder and the males had magnificent antlers, almost four metres wide. Molyneux was particularly impressed by "these spacious horns", which he encountered as fossils.

Molyneux was not comfortable with the idea God would allow one of his creations to become extinct. He believed the antlers belonged to an Irish version of the American moose, of which he had only a hazy idea. The English word for moose was elk and so the "Great Irish Elk" was born. The misnomer would last for centuries.

Although the giant deer ranged from Siberia to northern Africa, almost all the surviving skeletons and skulls are Irish. This is due to the unique pickling quality of Irish bogs. It seems the unfortunate top-heavy beasts regularly came to sticky ends mired in muddy lakes. The bog grew over them, fossilising their remains, until they were uncovered by turf-cutters.

Because the fossils are not mineralised, they can weight up to 35kg. "I have bench-pressed a set of giant deer antlers," says Nigel Monaghan, keeper of the Museum of Natural History. "Three strong people can be required to lift and carry a full rack of antlers, including the skull."

The antlers have always had cachet. In the early 16th century, the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, Adam Loftus of Rathfarnham Castle, sent a set of antlers to his English counterpart. Almost a century later, Charles II also received a set. He displayed them in the horn gallery at Hampton Court where, according to Molyneux, they were so impressive "that the rest appear to lose much of their curiosity".

In Ireland, the antlers were displayed in large country houses where they gave the (often misleading) impression of ancient Irish lineage. "They sent out a clear message that the family had been around for a long time," says George Fonsie Mealy, auctioneer. Throughout the 19th century, as museums began to establish their collections, they too provided a ready market for the antlers of the giant Irish deer.

"Amongst the fossils of the British Empire, none are more calculated to excite astonishment," wrote James Parkinson in 1811.

The museum of the Royal Dublin Society acquired more than 100 specimens, which were inherited by the Natural History Museum. The collection now includes 10 skeletons, three of which are mounted for display, and the remains of 250 others. Does this mean Dublin's Dead Zoo has enough giant deer? "We do have a lot," says Monaghan. "But enough is not a scientific concept."

The remains of giant deer are sometimes still uncovered but undamaged antlers are extremely rare. Nineteenth-century turf cutters used hand-held implements and could detect the skeletons without shattering them. "The fragments that come up in a digger aren't worth a lot," says Monaghan. "Most of the discoveries were made when things were done by hand." But, if you did happen to unearth a set of antlers on your land, it would be yours to sell. Unlike true archaeological artefacts, the remains of wild animals that died in the wild are not protected by law.

The antlers of the giant deer are both rare and valuable. A popular decorative item among the uber-rich, their value depends on the size and condition of the set, but also on its provenance. Buyers like to know that their prehistoric trophy once graced the ceremonial hallway of a well-known Irish house.

A set of antlers, along with the skull, are up for auction at Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers' on June 28 and 29. They are estimated to sell between €10,000 and €15,000. The antlers came from Dartrey House, Co Monaghan, which was demolished in the 1950s. Lady Edith Wyndham retained the antlers, along with some ancestral portraits (also included in the sale) when she moved into the steward's house on the estate.

Although the antlers come up at auction too rarely to detect a trend in prices, the astronomical figures recorded by Christie's of London in the early 2000s are probably a thing of the past.

In 2006, the antlers that once hung in Newbridge House sold at Christie's for £57,360 (at today's exchange rate, that would be €75,154). Christie's were also responsible for the sale of the antler set from Powerscourt House for £52,875 (€69,276) in 2001.

Irish prices have been a little more balanced. Last October, a pair of giant Irish deer antlers, showing the old ironwork strapping that once held them together, sold at Adam's for €8,500.

In 2012, a "reasonably complete set", which came from Knocklong, Co Tipperary, realised €17,000 at Mealy's. In 2011 a very large set of antlers (3.5m wide), including the skull, sold for €35,000 at Mealy's auction of the contents of Mallow Castle, Co Cork. The antlers had previously hung in Adare Manor, Co Limerick.

A further set of antlers (€7,000 to €10,000) will be auctioned at Adam's Country House Collections sale in October 2016.

Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers' Chatsworth Summer Fine Art Sale, takes place in Castlecomer on June 28 and 29, see See also

In the salerooms


With the typical panache of 19th century explorers, Léon de Laborde, Marquis, and his travelling companion Louis ‘Linant Pasha’ de Bellefonds dressed up as Bedouins to travel from Cairo to Petra in the 1820s.

The story is recounted in Laborde’s illustrated travelogue, Voyage de l’Arabie Petrée (1830). For a decade, the lithographic prints of Petra in the book were the only pictures of the site available and did much to shape the area in the imagination of the western imagination.

A first edition of the book sold for €9,000 at Adam’s Auction of Fine Period Interiors on May 22. At the sale, vigorous bidding upped the ante on an attractive Venetian painting. On The Lagoon, Venice (below), a quiet seascape by Pietro Fragiacomo (1856-1922), eventually sold for €34,000 (the upper estimate was €6,000).

Killarney ware — that ornately decorated indigenous style of inlaid furniture — is clearly no longer unfashionable. A Victorian Killarney games table, inlaid with arbutus and yew, sold for €8,500. The table top, showing the customary view of Muckross Abbey, folded out to reveal a checker board and a backgammon board. For full results see

IP tr On the Lag.jpg
Venetian painting: On The Lagoon, Venice.


An auction of antique furniture and vintage farm machinery from the late James Byrne, Little Arthurstown, Tallanstown, Dundalk, Co Louth, will take place on the premises on Saturday, June 11 at 1pm. The sale will be conducted by Lev Mitchell & Sons in conjunction with Joe Lennon of Milltown Country Auction Rooms.

Pieces in the sale include a Georgian mahogany linen press (€400-€600); a Georgian mahogany extending dining table with two extra leaves (€800-€1,200); a 19th century panelled oak coffer (€300-€500; a Regency side table (€400-€500); and Edwardian mahogany marquetry inlay envelope card table (€300-€500); a Victorain walnut brass-mounted writing slope (€300-€400); a Georgian mahogany stick barometer (€300-€400); and a pair of bronze Chinese vases (€400-€600). Viewing is on June 9, at 10am to 7pm, and on the morning of the day of sale.  Call 087 2513190 or 086 6032173 for directions.


The Lismore Opera  Festival Antiques Fair will take place tomorrow and Sunday at the Lismore Community Hall, Co


Expect a small fair with 20 stands. Doors open from 11am to 6pm and admission is €2.50 including a raffle ticket. There is no admission charge for children. See

Also on Sunday, the Toy and Train Fair will take place at the Talbot Hotel, Stillorgan, Dublin, from 10am to 3pm. Expect dealers, including Peter Edwards, with a range of collectable annuals, vintage comics, Hornby train sets, and Star Wars and Star Trek memorabilia.

Jim Magill will also attend with vintage cinema posters, front-of-house stills, vintage cinema campaign books and original film advertising. Items include the original first release movie poster for the John Wayne film The Sea Chase (1955) and the original first release poster for Birdman Of Alcatraz (1962) featuring Burt Lancaster. 

Magill will also offer a free valuation service on all movie ephemera. For further details, contact or 44 79 63409489.

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