Treasures: Get your ducks in a row for auction
Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column
Why do we have a problem with flying ducks? For decades they've been considered the epitome of bad taste. Looked at objectively, they're inoffensive wall plaques in the shape of birds in flight. There's nothing particularly vulgar about them. So how did they get such a bad rap?
I blame Coronation Street. Hilda Ogden, played by Jean Alexander, was a character in the British ITV soap between 1964 and 1987. She wore curlers and a headscarf, and was massively proud of her "muriel". This dubious piece of wall art showed a mountain vista with three flying ducks attached. One of them was always askew. Apparently, Alexander used to check its orientation before filming.
People laughed at Odgen's taste, but there was a poignant moment when she moved out of Corrie in 1987. In response to Percy Sugden's comment that she must be glad to leave the décor behind, Ogden replied: "I've come in here more times than I care to remember, cold, wet, bone tired, not a penny in me purse. And seeing them ducks and that muriel … well, they've kept me hand away from gas tap, and that's a fact." Flying ducks are working class heroes. They're cheery and comforting. And they're also collectible.
The original flying ducks were made by Beswick in Stoke-on-Trent. They were designed by a freelance artist, Mr Watkin, and produced in five sizes between 1938 and the early 1970s. As well as mallards, Watkins also modelled wall plaques in the shape of flying seagulls, pheasants, and blue tits. But it was the duck that stuck.
Now, you can pay up to €500 for a full set of five original Beswick flying mallards (Nos. 596/0 to 596/4). Other series of flying birds, like the humming bird (1945-67) and the pink-legged partridge (1950-67), came in sets of three and could fetch up to €100 for each bird.
Beswick's animal figures, made in high-fired bone china, were intended to be affordable. They were also realistic and accurate. The factory's greatest modeller, Arthur Gredington, worked at Beswick between 1939 and 1968. He created almost 400 models, ranging from koalas to pigs, but it's generally accepted that he was best at horses.
Gredington worked with the mould- maker, Arthur Hallam, to produce the models, but the colourways were designed by the decorating manager Jim Hayward, who worked at Beswick from 1926 to 1975.
They were then passed to a team of decorating girls, or "paintresses", who painted the models by hand. Now, their colours have a bearing on their value. Brown horses, for example, are more common than greys, and therefore less expensive. Gredington's lively and life-like Horse and Jockey (No. 1037; 1945-1976) is generally worth around €300, but prices vary according to the colourway of the horse and of the jockey's silks.
Most Beswick horses sell for less than €50 and, ironically, the less successful a model was at the time, the more valuable it is likely to be now. This February, a group of four (Palomino, no. 1261; Highland Pony, no. 1644; Dartmoor Foal and Dales Pony, no. 1671) sold at Thomas Watson auctions in the UK for £85 (€97). The Connemara pony in the same series is potentially worth between €130 and €170.
Gredington also made accurate models of cattle, which were popular among the farming community.
Some of Beswick's early of storybook characters, including Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit (1948-1980) and the Disney-based Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1954-67) were also modelled by Gredington. Older models, distinguished by the mark on the base, are usually more detailed and better painted.
Some collectors of Beatrix Potter figures will only buy the pre-1971 gold mark, believing these to be superior. The gold mark was replaced by the brown mark a few years after Beswick was taken over by Royal Doulton in 1969. The factory closed in 2002.
The rarest, and priciest, Beswick model is Spirit of Whitfield, a sturdy pony in harness, on a commemorative base. The model is based on Kruger, the last pit pony at Whitfield colliery, who retired in 1931. Only four figurines were made: one was presented to Anne, Princess Royal of England, in 1987. The others are being trotted around the auction circuit. In 2003, a Beswick Spirit of Whitfield sold at Bonhams, London, for £11,352 (€12,950), but prices have since plummeted; last September, one fetched £4,700 (€5,357) at Peter Wilson Auctioneers in the UK.
Beswick is also linked to an interesting piece of advertising history. The Beswick Dulux dog, an Old English sheepdog with its paw on a branded tin of paint, was produced between 1964 and 1970. This was an advertising item; only 2,500 models were made for their suppliers and, at 32cm high, it must have made an impressive piece of window dressing. In 2014, a Beswick Dulux dog sold for £240 (€270) at Peter Wilson Auctioneers. A few years ago, the same auctioneer sold a set of three Beswick green woodpecker wall plaques for £260 (€296). But there wasn't a flying duck in sight.
See 'The Beswick 2014 Price Guide' by Harvey May and peterwilson.co.uk
In the Salerooms
It's horses for courses at the next auction at O'Reilly's Fine Art, which takes place in Francis Street, Dublin, on Wednesday, April 25 at 1pm. Racing enthusiasts can take time out from Punchestown to bid for an Edwardian diamond brooch (pictured) with a round Essex glass centrepiece depicting a racehorse (est. €4,000 to €6,000); or a diamond pavé horse and jockey brooch, with an enamel finish and a horse that looks like it has a mind of its own (€2,800 to €3,800).
The sale also includes a set of three diamond pavé hunting brooches, depicting a fox, a hound and a mounted huntsman (est. €4,500 to €5,500); and an antique equine brooch, modelled as a riding crop, mounted in 9ct gold (est. €160 to €180). Viewing is this Sunday, April 22, 12 noon to 4 pm; Tuesday, April 24, 11am-5pm; and on the morning of the sale, 10am-12.30pm. See oreillysfineart.com
Matthew's Auction Rooms
Who knows what a Chinese vase may fetch at auction? "That market is a law onto itself!" says Damien Matthews. There's an antique Chinese Imperial yellow ground double gourd vase (est. €500 to €800) coming up for sale in his next auction, which takes place in Oldcastle, Co Meath, this weekend, commencing at 1.30pm on Saturday and Sunday.
"The vase possesses age, and the colouring and shape that the Chinese market likes," Matthews explains. There will also be many more predictable items like antique and collectible jewellery tomorrow), with antique interiors objects, silver, and a small library clearance of antiquarian books on Sunday.
Viewing continues today until 5pm and on the days of sale from 10.30am. matthewsauctionrooms.com
Antiques & Vintage Fairs
The South Dublin Antiques & Vintage Fair will take place this Sunday at the Royal Marine Hotel, Dun Laoghaire (see vintageireland.eu).
Also on Sunday, an antiques fair, organised by Hibernian Antiques Fairs, will take place at Longcourt House Hotel, Newcastle West, Co Limerick. Both fairs run from 11am-6pm and admission to each is €3.50.
An auction of Irish Bygone & Social History Auction will take place at Victor Mitchell's Mount Butler Salesrooms, Roscrea, Co Tipperary on Wednesday, April 25.
The sale includes many items that once belonged to George Murphy from Athy, a life-long collector of Irish relics dating from the 1880s to the 1950s.
They include: two "Penny Farthing" bicycles (est. €500 each); several "High Nellies" (est. €200 to €250 each); and three vintage motorbikes in need of restoration. There are also Edison phonographs, arcade games, oil lamps, dozens of carbide lamps, motor lights, children's bicycles, old wheelchairs, walking sticks, table oil lamps, old pistols, early photograph equipment, shop advertising signs, stoneware, glass bottles, cash registers, pipes, and snuff boxes.
Viewing is tomorrow and Sunday (1pm-6pm); and on April 23 and 24 (9am-6.30pm); see victormitchell.com