Sunday 17 February 2019

Treasures: Long Kitsch

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables

James Earl of Kildare

In September 2011, a model of a round tower made entirely of matchsticks went under the hammer at Whyte's. The auctioneers described it as a "well executed artwork", 33 cm high, complete with windows and an entry ladder. Its wooden base was inscribed: "To Fr. Jimmy from Martin Portlaoise Jail 1974".

The round tower had been made by Martin McGuinness, following his conviction for being a member of the IRA. McGuinness presented the artwork to Father Jimmy Shiels, a priest who visited him in prison. The tower carried an estimate of up to €1,500 and it sold for €5,200.

Prisoner art first came to fame in British prisons at the time of Napoleon. The Board of the British Transport Office allowed Napoleonic prisoners of war to make and sell objects, so long as their craft supplies didn't cost the British government anything. Therefore discarded bones from food were used and transformed into extraordinarily beautiful but fragile models. In 2011, a Napoleonic prisoner-of-war model of the 80-gun ship Sans Pareil sold at Bonhams in London for £22,500 (€25,466).

The prisoner art made in Ireland during the Troubles can't compete in terms of craftsmanship, but it's a poignant reminder of a time when many were in prison, and not all of them had broken the law. During the British policy of internment (August 1971 to December 1975) people suspected of paramilitary activities could be arrested and detained without trial. For internees, as well as convicted prisoners, making craft objects was a way of whiling away the time.

Of the 1,981 people interned, 1,874 were nationalist (or Catholics who were in the wrong place at the wrong time) and most of the prisoner artwork from this period shows symbols of national identity: harps, round towers, and Celtic crosses. Many of these are personalised, dated, and were given as gifts. Others were made anonymously and raffled in republican areas to raise money for prisoners' families.

Unionist prisoner art is rarer, and less likely to be sold south of the border.

Prisoner art from the Troubles has always been collectible, but much of it has remained with its original owners, often hidden away. It can be emotionally difficult to display and equally problematic to sell. The memories it evokes are recent and raw. Now, this is beginning to change, partly due to the passage of time, and partly to the auction fever of the 1916 centennial.

The auctioneers at Whyte's have high hopes for a round tower made of matchsticks, 48cm high, cut and glued by Denis McInerney of Co Clare and inscribed: "An Curragh, 1973". The model itself is not as fancy as the one made by Martin McGuinness, but there's a good story behind it. McInerney was a senior IRA member who, with Joe Cahill, travelled to Libya in 1972 to meet Colonel Gaddafi. The Colonel was sympathetic to the aims of the IRA and their opposition to British rule, and Cahill's memoir recalls that Gaddafi asked them for a shopping list. In 1973, the IRA attempted to smuggle weapons and explosives from Libya to Ireland on board The Claudia. That March, the ship reached the Waterford coast where it was intercepted by Irish naval patrol vessels. The arms and explosives were seized and five people were arrested.

Cahill was later sentenced to three years in prison; Denis McInerney received a two-year sentence, during which he made the model round tower (est. €300 to €500, above). It's coming up for sale in Whyte's Eclectic Collector auction in October.

The sale also includes a model of a Celtic Cross, 54cm high, made in Long Kesh by an inmate of Cage 3 in 1975 (est. €200 to €300) and the consignment process continues until the end of July.

If you have a piece of prisoner art from the Troubles, it's worth asking an auctioneer to value it. The craftsmanship does have a bearing on the value. Wooden harps that can be played, for example, are more valuable than purely decorative models. But the real value of a piece depends on the story behind it, even if the owner thinks it is insignificant. See

In the Salerooms


"Talk to me, Harry Winston, tell me all about it." That's a spoken interjection in the song Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend, as sung in the movie, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).

The real Harry Winston was a famous American jeweller, best known for donating the Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian Institution.

There's a Harry Winston diamond eternity ring mounted on platinum (est. €40,000 to €45,000) in the next sale of Fine Jewellery, Watches & Silver at O'Reilly's Auction Rooms on Wednesday July 18, beginning at 1 pm.

Other high value lots include a diamond three stone ring (est. €65,000 to €70,000) and an early twentieth century sapphire and diamond cocktail bracelet (est. €17,000 to €25,000).

There are also many more accessible pieces in the sale, including a turquoise owl brooch with round cut ruby eyes, in 18ct yellow gold (est. €700 to €1,100). Viewing from Sunday, July 15. See

Herman & Wilkinson

As predicted, the top lot at Herman & Wilkinson's Asian art auction on July 4 was a Chinese Qianlong yellow-ground green-enamelled dragon bowl, which sold for €13,360, while a Cong vase sold for €1,940.

The auctioneers are now consigning for their next Asian Art Auction in November. In the meantime, a Jewellery and Coin Auction will take place at Herman & Wilkinson on Wednesday, July 18, at 6pm and a Swan Hall Fine Art Auction on Thursday, July 19, at 10am. "It's a crazy mix of stuff," auctioneer Ross O'Suilleabhain says. "The sale will have a collection of antique armoury in superb condition, with a pepperbox percussion cap pistol. You do see them in the auction rooms, but rarely in such good nick."



A portrait of James, 20th Earl of Kildare, and his wife Emily Mary in the grounds of Carton (below) sold for €262,000 at Bonhams' Old Master Paintings sale in London on July 4.

James Earl of Kildare

The painting by Arthur Devis (est. €80,000 to €100,000) was commissioned in 1739 and shows the countess with the plans for a bridge. It was one of five works from the collection of the Duke of Leinster which collectively fetched €510,215.

A portrait of Emily Mary, Duchess of Leinster, by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), sold for €92,215, while one of her daughter-in-law, Emilia Olivia, by Hugh Douglas Hamilton (1740-1808), sold for €50,000. See

Antiques & Vintage Fairs

There are antiques and vintage fairs at opposite corners of the country this weekend. Tomorrow (14th), an AVA Antique Fair will take place at Hugh McCann's, Central Promenade, Newcastle, County Down, from 11am to 5pm, admission £2.

On Sunday (15th), Hibernian Antique Fairs will run their Fota Island Resort Antiques Fair, County Cork, from 11am to 6pm.

Indo Property

Editors Choice

Also in Life