Friday 15 December 2017

Treasures: Creamer has a silver lining

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

The cow creamer which sold at Adam's for €1,000
The cow creamer which sold at Adam's for €1,000
This pair of Victorian silver owls salts sold for €1,700
The claret jug made in Dublin in 1852 sold for €4,000
Pair of marble sphinxes went for €5,000

Eleanor Flegg

In PG Wodehouse's novel, The Code of the Woosters (1938), Bertie's aunt asks him to visit a particular antique shop and "sneer at a cow creamer". Her collector husband intends to purchase it, and thinks a few derogatory comments might drive the price down. The ignorant but obliging Bertie is instructed to publicly dismiss the silver cow creamer as "modern Dutch".

The fictional object might have been inspired by the work of John Schuppe of London, a Dutch immigrant silversmith who worked in the mid 18th century.

A cow-creamer is, quite simply, a milk jug in the shape of a cow. You fill the jug through a lid on the back and pour through the mouth. When Bertie sets eyes on the coveted object, he is not impressed: "It was a silver cow… a sinister, leering underworld sort of animal, the kind that would spit out the side of its mouth for twopence." A hilarious romp follows and Jeeves saves the day.

The story makes a couple of assumptions about silver and silver collectors that linger on today. One is that silver collectors are old, rich, and male. Another is that it's a specialist area that's beyond the ken of ordinary people. As always, there's some truth behind the prejudices, but an interest in collecting silver is not limited to the old and wealthy.

"I've collected silver since I was at school, mostly small items like flatware, perfume bottles, cigarette cases," says Rory Hutton, a young Irish fashion designer based in London ( "I've sold bits and pieces along the way, but I've still got a nice collection of Georgian flatware which I like to use when I have friends over!"

Hutton's partner collects 18th century Chinese ceramics. "A couple of months ago Chiswick Auction House sent an expert to our flat to select some pieces for their first Asian Art sale. He said he was very surprised to find two young people with a collection and that he generally only gets called to houses of the elderly!"

Silver is not an exclusively male interest either. The recent sale of a private collection of silver, which took place at Adam's on March 25, came from the estate of the late Margaret Hegarty (

The eclectic collection, with a number of small and quirky items alongside the expected array of bowls, jugs and goblets, included a real-life cow creamer.

The mild-looking beast, made in London in 1895, achieved its upper estimate of €1,000. A Victorian butter cooler with a blue glass insert, and also with a cow on top, sold for €1,900 (the upper estimate was €800). It was made in London by William Comyns, a silversmith whose work was of particular interest to the collector.

The estimates at Adam's were conservative, as executors' sales tend to be, but the prices realised were encouraging for those with silver to sell. The current weakness of the euro may also be attracting British buyers. The top lot, a gloriously simple George I beer jug went for €8,500 (the upper estimate was €2,000). It was made in Dublin by Thomas Bolton (1658-1736). The gifted silversmith had an interesting life. He rose to become Assay Master and subsequently Lord Mayor of Dublin, but died in poverty. His work is now held in high regard.

Apart from the historic interest, Georgian silver has a quiet aesthetic that appeals to contemporary taste, but the less fashionable and more highly embellished Victorian silver also showed good form, especially where the craftsmanship excelled. A claret jug with naturalistic plant detail including bunches of grapes, vine leaves and vine roots spreading over the foot, made in Dublin in 1852, exceeded the upper estimate by €500, selling for €4,000. A large silver monteith (a vessel with notched rim that was used to cool or rise wine glasses) also reached €4,000 (the upper estimate was €2,000). It was made in London in 1884 by William Comyns.

Smaller and more eclectic pieces included an expressive pair of Victorian silver salts in the form of owls, which sold for €1,700, and a 1960s stirrup cup cast in the shape of a fox head that reached €950. Unaccountably, the fox is smiling. A pair of knife rests in the shape of dachshunds, made in Sheffield in 1915, sold for €250; a butter dish in the shape of a reindeer and carriage for €220; a Edwardian glass lined sweet dish with handles in the shape of swans for €190. My point being that, while old and rare silver will always be expensive, there are plenty of small engaging pieces that aren't.

There's a mystique about silver that aficionados have been in no hurry to dispel. Without wanting to denigrate the real experts, there's a lot off-putting language around silver collecting that's not really necessary for appreciating the work.

Go to any auction viewing and you'll find people glancing at the undersides of silver objects and talking knowledgeably about names and dates. It's not magic. They're just reading the hallmarks, (get the very useful Jackson's Hallmarks app on your Smartphone for €6.99 from the App Store).

Similarly, phrases that describe decorative motifs (gadroon rims, opposing cartouches and c-scrolls) become less intimidating once you run them through a search engine. Actually becoming a connoisseur takes years of study, learning to talk like one is much easier.

In the salerooms


Irish Georgian furniture led the way in Mealy's Spring Sale, which took place from March 24-26 in Castlecomer, with a pair of mahogany sofas from the George IV period reaching the top price of €12,000, far above the upper estimate of €2,000.

The decorous sofas, straight legged and straight backed, were probably made by Mack, Williams & Gibton of Dublin. A prim and proper pair of marble sphinxes, showing nice detail in the carving, went for €5,000, exceeding the estimate by €1,000 and a plain red Chinese dish in sang de boeuf glaze and dating from the 18th century reached €6,400 (the upper estimate was €3,000).

The Lion Hunt, an oil on copper panel painting of a hunting scene, dramatic to the point of high comedy, sold for €4,000. It is attributed to William van Herp (1614-1677) after Peter Paul Rubens.


A Cork Freedom Box, made in Dublin in 1808 and given to the naval officer Captain Rob Hall for gallant conduct in the Napoleonic wars, sold at John Weldon Auctioneers on March 24 for €5,500, while a George I silver snuffer tray made by Thomas Walker of Dublin in the early 1720s reached €880. A three-stone diamond ring, with a centre stone of 2cts flanked by two of slightly smaller size, sold for €7,000, while four lots of bags of small loose diamonds, each with an estimate of €500 to €700 also sold well: one made €1,850; another €1,250; another €600; and the last one €580. Waterford crystal was moving more slowly than of late, but 32 of the 50 lots sold.


De Veres Irish Art Auction, which took place on March 24, marked the opening of their new showroom and gallery space at 35 Kildare Street, Dublin 2. The viewing took place in this venue, with the auction itself next door in Buswells Hotel. The top price, unexpectedly, was achieved by Jack Butler Yeats' painting of Halloween callers The Bang the Door Boys (1944), which sold for €95,000 (it had been estimated between €60,000 and €80,000).

Waves Breaking on the Shore at Sunset, a seascape by Roderic O'Connor achieved the upper estimate of €40,000 and Peace, a beach scene by Mainie Jellett, sold for €18,500. The Window, a still life by Neville Johnson, doubled its upper estimate, selling for €10,000, and Late Summer, Knockalough (1977), a landscape by Brian Bourke, which was estimated between €4,000 and €6,000, sold for €8,000.

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