Tuesday 24 April 2018

Treasures: Limerick's silver lining

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

Joseph Johns cream jug.
Joseph Johns cream jug.

A privileged few have been born with a silver spoon in their mouth. But if that silver spoon happens to have been made in Limerick, their fortune is even richer.

"Someone came in to me the other day with a pocketful of silver teaspoons," says the antique dealer Jimmy Weldon. "One of them was from Limerick and it was worth between €400 and €500. The others were worth €20 and €50 apiece."

This isn't something that happens often. Limerick silver is valuable because it's very rare. In general, Irish antique silver is more valuable than its English equivalent (even when the actual pieces are similar). That's because there were far fewer silversmiths in Ireland than in England. The vast majority of these were Dublin-based, so silver made in Limerick and Cork is even more prized.

"Cork silver is about 10 times rarer than Dublin silver and Limerick silver is about 10 times rarer than Cork silver," says Weldon.

Silver made in Galway, Kinsale, Waterford or Tipperary is rarer still, to the point that it's very unlikely to turn up in someone's cutlery drawer. "There is one Galway spoon that I've been trying to buy for years," Weldon muses. "I've offered the owner €15,000 for it, but she still won't sell. And it's only a soup spoon!"

Most domestic silver made in Limerick dates from the 18th and early 19th centuries. Throughout this time, only 110 silversmiths worked in the city and many of these also ran other businesses, like clock-making. The majority lived within the Englishtown of the old walled city, and a small number in the Irishtown. When Edmund Sexton Pery developed the city in the late 18th century, most of the remaining silversmiths moved into the newly built Newtown Pery, where they had more favourable taxes.

This handful of highly skilled makers produced a remarkable body of work, most of which is now in museums. Weldon still remembers the moment, almost 25 years ago, when someone walked into his shop carrying the Corporation Seal of Kilmallock, wondering if it could be worth anything. The historic seal is now in the National Museum of Ireland.

Limerick silver sells for ridiculously high prices. In 2014, a helmet-shaped cream jug, 11.5cm high, sold at Adam's for €10,500. It was made by Joseph Johns of Limerick around 1750. Weldon currently has a George II sugar bowl - a beautifully plain three-legged bowl with subtle detailing and measuring less than eight centimetres in diameter. It was made by Collins Brehon around 1750 and is priced at a cool €18,500. The sugar bowl carries the maker's mark and the word "starlin". This is probably a phonetic version of "sterling" (not all 18th century silversmiths could read).

Most silver is easy to identify. In 1637 the Assay Office of Dublin was established to assay and hallmark all items of gold and silver made in Ireland. By decoding the hallmark on the underside of a piece you can identify the maker, find the year the piece was made and confirm that it was made in Ireland.

But, for silversmiths living in Cork and Limerick, the hallmarking process involved subjecting their precious work to a long and dangerous journey. The roads were bad and highwaymen knew just what to look out for. Many provincial silversmiths decided that it just wasn't worth the risk and opted to stamp their wares themselves. For this reason, Cork and Limerick silver is less easily identifiable than pieces made in Dublin, which explains why smaller pieces can remain undiscovered.

The most common pieces of silver made in Limerick are flatware - spoons, forks and ladles. A good soup spoon could be worth up to €2,500, a pair of basting spoons around €12,000 and a meat skewer between €3,500 and €4,000. A Dublin-made meat skewer, in contrast, would be valued between €650 and €750.

To an untrained eye, one silver spoon is very much like another, but experts can see a subtle stylistic difference between the bright-cut engraving on a Cork and a Limerick spoon. That's the faceted detail along the stem of a spoon, designed to sparkle in candlelight.

"Limerick silver is rare, but if you live in the area and have a box of spoons, it's worth looking through them," says Weldon.

Because Limerick silver is difficult to identify, he recommends bringing it to an expert and trustworthy dealer, preferably a member of the Irish Antique Dealers Association (IADA). While some auction houses have resident experts with the skill to identify provincial silver, it's also possible a valuable piece might get overlooked.

"I recently found a Limerick silver nutmeg grater at auction," says Weldon. "I bought it for next to nothing because they didn't recognise the mark."

Weldon will be one of the dealers in attendance at this weekend's National Antiques, Art & Vintage Fair, which takes place in the South Court Hotel, Limerick City, tomorrow and Sunday.

See hibernianantiquefairs.com and weldons.ie.

In the showrooms


The National Antiques, Art & Vintage Fair will take place at the South Court Hotel, Limerick City, tomorrow and Sunday.

Expect more than 100 dealers selling everything from antique furniture, Irish art, jewellery and silver, to porcelain and china, coins and banknotes, books, clocks, vintage fashion accessories, train sets and tin plate toys, and Star Wars memorabilia.

“You name it, it will be there,” says the fair’s organiser Robin O’Donnell. “This will be Ireland’s biggest ever fair by a long stretch.”

Fifteen of the exhibitors are members of the IADA, with specialist expertise in high-end antique objects, but there will also be many dealers selling affordable, unusual and quirky vintage items.

The fair runs from 11am to 6pm on both days with further details on hibernianantiquefairs.com.

Closer to the capital, and on a much smaller scale, an Antiques & Collectables Fair will run at the Dublin Tara Towers Hotel, Merrion Road, on Sunday from 11am to 6pm. 


The next auction at John Weldon Auctioneers takes place on Tuesday at 2pm.  Interesting pieces of Irish silver include a silver salver on three feet with the crest of a hand grasping a broken spear and inscribed Vi et Arte (by force and art). It is estimated to sell between €400 and €600.

A silver hot water pot made in London by Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Co Ltd in 1924 is guided €250 to €450. The sale also contains many pieces of diamond jewellery: a diamond single stone ring, with a GIA print out which states the diamond is .90cts F colour and SI1 Clarity Guiding (€2,000 to €2,500); a 14ct gold ruby & diamond set cluster bracelet, total estimated weight of diamonds 3.65cts and ruby 6.96cts (€5,000 to €6,000); and a diamond single stone ring, estimated weight of diamond 1.01cts set in platinum (€2,000 to €3,000).

For full details see jwa.ie.


Paul Henry raised the top prices at Whyte’s auction of Important Irish Art on May 30, with two paintings selling to a collector in Clare for €100,000 and €82,000 respectively, while Seán Keating’s painting, Salud, sold for €52,000 to another Clare-based collector.

Gerard Dillon also sold well. His West Of Ireland Couple And Horses made €36,000 while The Fish Eaters (below) went for €24,000. The sale included a number of lively paintings by Harry Kernoff whose affectionate beach scene of North Bray Harbour in the 1930s sold for €28,000. Queen’s New Court, Store Street, Dublin (c.1939-1940), also by Kernoff, shows a similarly engaging Dublin streetscape and sold for €16,000.

Tony O’Malley’s Pond Reverie went to a Dublin collector for €22,000; Barrie Cooke’s large triptych, Forest, sold for €18,000 to a collector in England; and John Shinnors’ Trapeze I went for €16,000 and will remain in Dublin. Child, a charcoal drawing by Sean O’Sullivan, tripled its upper estimate of €700 and sold for €1,600, while a numbered edition of JM Synges’ The Playboy Of The Western World, illustrated by Seán Keating, sold for €1,500. The upper estimate was €700.

Saint Francis Of Assisi (c.1903) by Jack B Yeats sold for €8,000. The painting was a gouache design for a sodality banner for Loughrea Cathedral, which was executed by the Dun Emer Guild. For full results, see whytes.ie.

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