Treasures: Losing the family silver
Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column
When stashing the family silver in a bank vault, make sure to keep the receipt! That's exactly what an 18th-century Mullingar family didn't do. The 1798 Rebellion was brewing and, mindful of looting, wealthy Irish people were hiding their valuables. This particular family had a very lovely silver dressing table service. Made in Dublin by John Segar in 1685, it was already almost a century old, and just the kind of thing that would catch a looter's eye. Sensibly, they sent it down to the La Touche bank in Dublin for safekeeping. Less sensibly, they lost the receipt. The dressing table service lay in the bank vault, like Sleeping Beauty, for 100 years.
Ironically, that century spent in a time capsule is what makes the silver so valuable today. Six items from the original service - an octagonal casket, a pincushion, a pair of covered boxes, a clothes brush and a hair brush - are coming up for auction at Christie's Exceptional Sale, New York, on April 20. They're estimated to sell for between $60,000 and $90,000 (€48,746 to €73,119).
Irish silver from the reign of Charles II is very rare and especially valuable when, like this one, it's decorated with Chinoiserie flat-chasing (that's low-relief ornamentation with a Chinese theme). Most 17th-century silver is so blurred that it's hard to see the pictures. Usually, daily use has gradually rubbed down markings that were once crisp and clear. But this set - having spent a century in a time capsule - is looking remarkably perky.
"It's been sitting in a collection in Boston, and nobody knew it was there!" says Jill Waddell, senior specialist in silver at Christie's, New York. "When we went out to the house, the family had it all laid out with other pieces of Chinoiserie silver from the same time. We picked up one little box and noticed that it was Irish. Then the set grew under our eyes and we realised that we'd just walked in on the most wonderful treasure!"
The Irish dressing table set was purchased in London by a known collector, Richard Cushing Paine Sr (1893-1966) around 1930, and inherited by his son-in-law, John Constable (1927-2016). Its story had been lost in time. "The family really didn't know what they had," Waddell says.
Chinoiserie silver was a short-lived affair in Ireland, and was only made between 1680 and 1690. Early Chinoiserie is often hilarious because, although people liked the idea of the Orient, nobody knew what it actually looked like. Irish silversmiths were a long way from objects that actually came from China, and the decoration on the dressing table set is fantasy, pure and simple. The lot essay, based on research by Dr Thomas Sinsteden of the Dublin Assay Office, describes how: "The buildings to the top of the casket seem to recall an Eastern Orthodox church or a Turkish-style mosque, perhaps from "Tartary" around Ukraine or Southern Russia."
The decoration, as Waddell explains, offers a wonderful insight into what a 17th-century Irish silversmith thought that Chinese flora and fauna might look like.
"There are birds with ears, and little dragons, and animals that come completely out of the imagination. It also seems to have a narrative." On one of the boxes, a lady greets her suitor from a balcony while a dragon drinks from a water fountain. The dressing table set was recovered from the bank vault when La Touche Bank was taken over by the Bank of Ireland around 1870 and restored to the Mullingar family, who may have been the Handcocks of Moydrum Castle, near Athlone. The IRA burnt Moydrum in 1921. Some accounts record that silver was stolen from the house; others claim that the IRA helped Lady Castlemaine and her daughter to remove their belongings, while, in a gentlemanly fashion, they burnt down their house.
Either way, the silver dressing table service made its way to the jewellers, Carrington and Co of London, where it was purchased by Richard Paine around 1930.
This may also be the time when the set was divided. In the late 1940s, three items from the same set - a mirror and two candlesticks - were on loan to the National Museum of Ireland. Their owner was Kurt Ticher, a Dublin-based German national and a collector of Irish silver. In 1962, the museum purchased the three pieces for a total of £1,500. Now, experts agree that there is no doubt that the National Museum of Ireland's mirror and candlesticks were once part of the service presented at Christie's.
"It's an absolutely outstanding set!" says Audrey Whitty, Keeper, Art & Industrial Division at NMI. Other than that, she's saying nothing. When significant pieces of Irish history come up at auction, the museum never reveals its hand. But wouldn't it be great if the pieces were reunited?
See christies.com and museum.ie
In the Salerooms
John Weldon Auctioneers
A large sapphire, carved in the shape of a lion's head, is among the more unusual pieces coming up at John Weldon Auctioneers' next sale of fine jewellery and silver. The auction takes place in Cow's Lane, Temple Bar, Dublin 8, on Tuesday at 2pm. The sapphire is estimated to sell for between €3,400 and €3,800. The sale also includes a diamond and onyx ring (pictured) in the Art Deco style (est €80,000 to €90,000). "It's the largest diamond of this quality that I've ever been asked to auction," John Weldon says, pointing out that the stone is about 13 mm in diameter and dates from the 1890s, while the ring was made in the 1920s or 30s. An eye-catching emerald, enamel and diamond brooch/pendant (est €1,500 to €2,500) shows Saint George, mounted on a white horse, killing a dragon. It's an engaging narrative piece with a bright green dragon and lots of bright red enamel blood. Viewing is tomorrow and Sunday (12 noon to 5pm); Monday (11am to 5pm); and on the day of sale (10.30am to 12.30pm). See jwa.ie.
Dublin Painting & Sketching Club
The Dublin Painting & Sketching Club (DPSC) is celebrating its 140th anniversary with a return to its urban origins. This year, instead of the usual Dun Laoghaire venue, the historical artists' association will hold its annual exhibition in CHQ on Dublin's Custom House Quay, near to where it was founded. "Our roots are beside the Liffey. Settled there again, we can reflect on the life and energy of the city," says the club president Aidan Hickey. The exhibition runs from Monday 16 to April 29 and incorporates a "River Liffey" theme, but will also include other subjects executed in oil, watercolour, pastel and ink, drawing, lithograph and print. Works on show range from €250 (for a small print or drawing) to €4,000; most are €750 and €1,000. Exhibiting artists include club members: Margo Banks, Patrick Cahill, Betty Christie, Fergal Flanagan, Bridget Flinn, Edward Freeney, Michael Gemmell, Olivia Hayes, Tomas King, Vincent Lambe, Pamela Leonard, Padraig Lynch, Tom Roche, Tom Scott, Tom Ryan and Aidan Hickey. See dublinpaintingandsketchingclub.ie.
The wonderful - and very large - sculpture Bird Barking (1959) by Hilary Heron sold for €7,000 at Adam's Important Irish Art auction on March 27. Heron (1923-1976) was a pioneering Irish sculptor and one of the first to make art in the alluring material of welded iron. Bird Barking was made in a London studio that she shared with Elizabeth Frink. At 213cm long, it's one of her largest sculptures, made in welded steel, and inspired by the comment of an urban friend who found it difficult to sleep in the countryside "because of the cuckoo barking". See adams.ie.