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Treasures... Letters: the price is write

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column


Irish writer Kate O'Brien whose letters fetched €12,000

Irish writer Kate O'Brien whose letters fetched €12,000

Kate's letters

Kate's letters

Lobster caviar dish cover

Lobster caviar dish cover


Irish writer Kate O'Brien whose letters fetched €12,000

The novelist Kate O'Brien (1897-1974) was undeniably gorgeous, albeit in a clean-cut mannish sort of way. In the 1920s, she taught at an Ursuline Convent in Hampstead, London. Here, a group of her pupils developed a collective crush on O'Brien, calling her 'The Beloved'. When this was brought up at a parent/teacher meeting, the Reverend Mother responded: "The truth is that The Beloved is very beautiful."

The story comes from O'Brien's entry in the Dictionary Of Irish Biography, co-authored by Dr Lorna Reynolds, Kate O'Brien's biographer and lifelong friend. The two women wrote to each other regularly between 1940 and 1969. Reynolds kept their correspondence, which was put up for auction at Sheppard's on March 8. The letters were estimated to sell for between €3,000 and €5,000.

The timing of the auction for International Women's Day was appropriate. Kate O'Brien is one of Ireland's foremost female writers and probably Ireland's leading lesbian writer of all time. She wrote honestly about sexuality. As a result, two of her books were banned in Ireland.

As Reynolds describes, Mary Lavelle (1936) depicts "an adulterous relationship between a young Irish girl and a married Spanish man (as well as a declaration of love for the girl from an older Irish lesbian)". The Land of Spices (1941), a semi-autobiographical novel, was banned on the basis of a single line: "She saw Etienne and her father, in the embrace of love."

Not much is known about O'Brien as a person. According to her contemporaries, most of her correspondence was destroyed. Last year, the University of Limerick's Glucksman Library launched a collection of O'Brien's letters to her sister, Nance O'Mara. These dealt largely with family matters. The letters from the Reynolds archive throw more light on O'Brien as a writer and independent woman living in London, her social life and her relationship with the publishing industry.

Ken Bergin, Head of Special Collections at the UL Glucksman Library, went to the auction. As a writer of international repute, O'Brien's correspondence would be of interest to bidders from abroad, including the Northwestern University Library, Illinois, which already holds an archive of her manuscripts. But O'Brien was a Limerick lady, born and bred. "It is there indeed that I learnt the world, and I know that wherever I am, it is still from Limerick that I make my surmises," she wrote in My Ireland (1962). For many, it seemed fitting that her letters should come back to her native city.

As the auction commenced, Bergin was on the edge of his seat. "There were two other bidders, both were telephone bidders," he says. "I was the only one bidding in the room." Eventually, Bergin secured the letters for the UL Glucksman Library for the cost of €12,000.

University libraries, as Bergin explains, prefer to be given collections of letters rather than to buy them. As well as the cost of the purchase, the library will have to pay for a conservator to preserve the collection. Kate O'Brien's letters, for example, are in fragile condition and need urgent work to prevent further decay. Once conserved and catalogued, they will be made publicly available through the library system.

For those with a collection of letters that they wish to either donate or sell, this is lesson one: paper and ink are delicate materials and need to be kept in a clean, dry place. Nobody is going to want to invest in something that is about to fall apart. The first step is to have a good sniff. If the letters smell bad, you will want to change the way you store them. Check also for foxing as these rust-coloured stains will compromise the value of the collection. If in doubt, call a conservator.

The potential value of a collection of letters is difficult to estimate. "All personal correspondence is valuable, but whether it is of monetary value or not often depends on who it's to and who it's from," says Philip Sheppard, auctioneer. The correspondence of famous people is liable to do well at auction. The letters of ordinary people are only likely to sell when they throw light on a moment in history.

Provenance has a direct bearing on the value of a collection of letters and, before you sell, you will have to demonstrate how they came to be in your possession. When the auctioneer David Herman was nine years old, he bought a second-hand book. In the book was a letter that seemed to be from William IV of England (1765-1837). The letter was addressed to someone called Usher, an employee at Dublin Castle. In it, William referred to his "little plant", probably an illegitimate child. This was not out of character.

William, who died without a legitimate heir, was survived by eight of 10 known illegitimate children. Their mother was Dorothea Bland, an Irish actress known, for the sake of respectability, as Mrs Jordan.

It's more than 50 years since the letter was discovered and Herman believes that it is genuine. It is written on the correct form of "laid paper" and has quality without being official. But, without solid provenance, it can't be sold as being from William IV of England. But Herman likes having the letter and has no intention of selling it.

See sheppards.ie, hermanwilkinson.ie, and ul.ie/library/. Specialist conservators can be contacted via conservationireland.org.

In the salerooms


The Mealy's Spring Sale takes place on Tuesday and Wednesday at the Castlecomer Saleroom, Co Kilkenny, starting at 11am each day.

Amid the usual period paintings, furniture and decorative arts, the auction includes a private collection of guns and other militaria, and a selection of family silver, previously held in the bank. One of the most striking silver pieces is a caviar dish cover in the form of a lobster (below) with articulated claws (est €2,500 to €3,500).


Lobster caviar dish cover

Lobster caviar dish cover

Lobster caviar dish cover


Furniture in the sale includes an engaging rocking cradle with a Gothic style arched hood (est €2,200 to €2,500) dating from the reign of William IV of England. See mealys.ie.


"Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose." The quote - written and sung by Kris Kristofferson and Janis Joplin in 'Me And Bobby McGee' were written in chalk on the wall of the artist Basil Blackshaw (1932-2016).

The contents of Blackshaw's studio are included in Adam's sale of Important Irish Art, which takes place on Wednesday at 6pm.

As is the way with studio sales, it offers insightful moments expressed in sketches, drawings and studies, as well as finished works. The most memorable of the oil paintings from Blackshaw's studio - and the most expensive - is a laconic portrait of Clint Eastwood (est €10,000 to €15,000).

See adams.ie.


This Sunday, a Mother's Day Antique Fair will take place at Cahir House Hotel, Cahir, Co Tipperary, from 11am-6pm. Expect around 30 stands with antique and collectible objects to suit a range of pockets. The fair is organised by Hibernian Antique Fairs and admission is €3.50, including a raffle ticket. There's no charge for children.


A Watches Valuation Day will take place on Thursday at Bonhams' Irish Office, 31 Molesworth Street, Dublin 2. The event is free and there's no obligation to sell.

Auctioneers are brokers, like estate agents, and don't buy items for their sales - they merely make the arrangements. If an object is sold, the auctioneers take an agreed percentage of the price. The contact for booking this event is Kieran O'Boyle: 01 6020990 or kieran.oboyle@bonhams.com.


The next antiques auction at Milltown Country Auction Rooms, Dromiskin, Dundalk, Co Louth, takes place on Monday at 5pm. The sale includes the contents of two local houses and 100 lots of memorabilia from a barn in Mosney, Co Meath, with pieces of interest such as an antique spinning wheel (est €200 to 300) and a set of eight mahogany Georgian-style dining chairs (est €600 to €800). See milltownauctionrooms.com.

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