Life Home & Garden

Friday 23 February 2018

Treasures: Fireplaces and money to burn

Chesterfield House marble chimney piece
Chesterfield House marble chimney piece
George III style mahogany peat bucket.
19th century fire tool set.
20th century Native  American headdress

Edward Lear's nonsense song, below, about fire irons on an outing was published in 1871. If he'd been writing 100 years earlier, the broom wouldn't have been included.

The Broom and the Shovel, the Poker and the Tongs,

They all took a drive in the Park,

And they each sang a song, Ding-a-dong, Ding-a-dong,

Before they went back in the dark.

"When you look at an 18th century set of fire tools, there are only three of them - the poker, the tongs and the shovel - there was no little brush," says Don Ryan, antique dealer and expert in all things related to the fireplace. "In the 18th century, the hearth was a dirty, dusty place - as were the houses - the air was thick with soot and people suffered all sorts of illnesses as a result." In the days before central heating, fireplaces and the objects associated with them were tremendously important. "Every room had one," Ryan explains. "Any house of scale would have had a fendersmith whose job it was to tend the fires."

In grand 18th century houses, the marble chimney piece was the single most expensive item in the house. Now, they can sell for more than most people would pay for a house. A marble chimney piece was an obvious status symbol that spoke of the wealth and taste of its owner. Some were shipped home from France or Italy, others were made closer to home.

In Stewartstown, Co Tyrone, antique dealers Ryan & Smith have a white and green marble chimney piece that once graced the drawing room of Chesterfield House, Mayfield. At just over 2.5 metres wide and 1.8 metres high, and priced at £360,000 (€454,548), it's destined for a very large house with a very wealthy owner. With columns of fluted green marble on either side and a finely carved frieze depicting Flora, goddess of spring, flanked by swags of oak leaves and acorns, it's also drop-dead gorgeous.

The story of its designer, Iaasc Ware (1704-1766), could have come from a novel by Georgette Heyer. Born into poverty in London, Ware was a chimney sweep and street urchin. The third Earl of Burlington reputedly saw his charcoal pavement drawing of the Banqueting House, recognised his talent, and adopted him. Ware was brought up as a nobleman. He went on to become an architect and is best known for his translation of the works of the Renaissance architect, Andre Palladio.

It's very unlikely that anyone will have an undiscovered chimney piece of great value - these are well documented pieces that were expensive at the time - but antique grates can also have value. "Grates can surprise you," Ryan says. "To look at them you might not think they were worth money."

The most covetable, known as 'registered grates' were made in brass by companies like Clarke's of Aston Quay, Dublin, in the late 18th century. These can be worth up to €25,000 and are signed by the maker. Clarke's also made fenders, the brass surround that contained the fire. These can be worth up to €19,000.

Because 20th century fireplace accessories tended to imitate the style of antiques, they can be difficult to date. "Most sets of brass fire tools that you find at auction are 20th century," says Ryan.

In a set of antique fire tools, the little shovel will often have decorative piercing on the flat surface. To the modern user, intent on cleaning the fireplace, this can be an annoyance. The ash falls through the perforations and creates a mess. But the tool was intended to sift the ash from the precious coals so that they could be returned to the fire.

"When you see those perforations, the fire tools tend to be 19th century or earlier. It is often a sign of authenticity."

An early set of iron fire tools, finely cast, can be worth up to €2,000.

Most fire tools and accessories are not so expensive, even if they're genuine antiques. Sheppard's forthcoming auction of Country House Collections at Coolattin House, Co Wicklow, includes several 18th century fenders of serpentine shape with bright-cut engraving. They're estimated to sell between €1,200 and €1,800 each, as is an Edwardian club fender with padded leather seats.

"They're a tasteful accessory, robust and practical," says Michael Sheppard. "They set the tone in a room. A fireplace is very central and it's important to have the right objects around it." Nineteenth century fire accessories are more affordable, as well as being smaller in scale, and the sale includes a cast iron grate (€1,500 to €2,500), and an Edwardian brass fire fender (€800 to €1,200), a brass coal helmet (€200 to €300) and sets of fire tools with estimates starting at €200.

There are also a number of 'George III style' mahogany peat buckets, estimated between €1,200 and €3,000. George III style, in this context, means the buckets are 20th century reproductions, showing the typical brass binding and spiral carved body. They're large items, often more than 60cm high, and designed to hold enough turf for a full day's burning.

The original buckets are unique to Ireland and can sell for astronomical prices. In the heady days of 2005, a George III mahogany peat bucket famously sold at Adam's for €145,000. The price was largely borne of two bidders wanting the same object. A really good example from an antique dealer might now sell for around €10,000.

Sheppard's auction of Country House Collections takes place at Coolattin House, Shillelagh, Co Wicklow, on June 28 and 29, with full details on See also

In the salerooms


The Summer Chatsworth Fine Art Sale, a two-day sale of objects from Irish country houses, will take place at the Old Cinema, Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny, next Tuesday and


The sale includes many unusual and interesting items, including an early 20th century Native  American headdress  (below) complete with eagle feather quills and plumes, coloured threaded supports, a decorative bead-work front, and plaited human hair.

ipNative American.jpg
20th century Native  American headdress

It came to Ireland with Miss Elizabeth Clarke of Cotes & Clarke, USA, who married into the Laidlaw family of Castleknock, Co Dublin. It is estimated between €2,000 and €3,000.

The sale also includes a pair of fossilised antlers from a giant Irish deer, spanning over two metres and including the skull (€10,000 to €15,000); a 19th century tiger skin preserved for Col Smythie of Castlemorris House, Tralee, by Gerard & Sons of London; and a large taxidermy example of a grizzly bear. For full details, see fonsie


The Sunday Sale at De Vere’s will take place this Sunday at Buswell’s Hotel, Kildare Street, Dublin, at 2pm. The sale will include 150 items, mainly paintings. Many of these come from long term storage (meaning that both the owners and the auctioneers are keen to see the back of them).

This ensures that reserves are low (€100 to €5,000) and the general emphasis of the auction is affordability — this is a good place for new buyers or those who simply want something nice to put on the wall. The ensemble also includes many established names. At the upper end  of the sale, Kenneth Webb’s

Kinsale Harbour is estimated between €3,000 and €5,000, as is Hughie O’Donoghue’s Bellacorick, Mouth of the Turning River I. Full details on


An Antiques & Vintage Fair will take place at the Conyngham Arms Hotel, Slane, Co Meath, on Sunday. A guided tour of the historic Hill of Slane will take place at 2pm. Further information is available on 087 267060. Also on Sunday, an Ava Antique & Collectors’ Fair will take place at the Glenavon House Hotel, Cookstown, Co Tyrone, with an eclectic mix of dealers selling everything from oil lamps and barometers to silver and porcelain. The fair is from 11am to 6pm, adult admission is £2 and further information is available on 0044 28 30267431.


In the 1870s, bangles were the most fashionable type of arm ornament, typically with wide gold bands and circular gem-set or enamelled decorative motifs. One such, the hinged bangle set to the front with an oval plaque, enclosing a cabochon carbuncle inlaid with a yellow gold and seed pearl motif (€1,000 to €2,000) is on offer at Adam’s sale of Fine Jewellery and Watches, which takes place on June 28 at 6pm.

The rest of the sale ranges from a natural pearl and diamond brooch (€35,000 to €45,000) to humbler items such as a pair of aquamarine ear pendants mounted in 18k gold (€400 to €600). For full details, see

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