Sunday 18 August 2019

Treasures: Old Masters are Dutch gold

Ireland's antiques, fine arts and collectables column

Droogloot's Figures On A Bridge
Droogloot's Figures On A Bridge
Van der Poel's Merrymakers Outside A Local Tavern
1916 Order of Surrender

'That frame is in rag order!" The woman pointed to a painting on her wall. The gilded frame wasn't exactly in rag order, but it did look a bit battered around the edges. And the small painting was so dark and murky that it was hard to see what was happening in it.

Nothing but two glints - of a moon and of an upraised torch. Some people were vaguely visible around that torch but that was about it. However, there was something about the quality of the framing that grabbed the auctioneer's attention. He took a closer look.

The owner of the painting was downsizing. She'd put her house up for sale, taken what she needed and called in the house-clearance team from Herman & Wilkinson to sort out the rest. "She had received the painting as part of an inheritance," says auctioneer Ross O'Suilleabhain. "She liked it, but had no particular attachment to it."

He noticed that the frame was inscribed with the name of the artist, Van der Poel. That indicated that it might be the work of Egbert Van der Poel (1621-1664), a landscape painter whose work belongs to the Dutch Golden Age. He's relatively obscure, but known for his scenes of Delft in the aftermath of the gunpowder explosion of 1654.

There's one of these in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, showing a dramatic scene of people fleeing from the blast.

While you wouldn't want to believe everything you found written on a picture frame, O'Suilleabhain felt the painting had something special about it. He spoke to the lady: "The Dutch Golden Age gives off an aura. Art from that period tends to stand out from your standard Victorian paintings. And the framing is lovely. It needs to be re-gilded, but the interior is in very good condition."

Once you get past the murkiness, the painting depicts revellers outside a village tavern. It's a lively scene, showing the contrast between the warm glow of the firelight from the pub and the cold light of the moon shining through the clouds. Moonlight is one of the themes in Van der Poel's work, which strengthens the argument that this one could be genuine.

The next step was to seek an expert opinion. "I asked a colleague of mine in the UK to look at it," O'Suilleabhain says. "It's a very specialist market."

If that specialist is prepared to confirm that the painting is Van der Poel's work, it will be worth between €10,000 and €20,000. If they don't, it will be sold as "attributed to Van der Poel". This means that it is probably his work, but that nobody is prepared to stake their reputation on it.

And as I write O'Suilleabhain and is vendor are awaiting the news. Now it goes for auction and depending on this judgement, could earn its owner a princely sum.

"A lot of auctioneers tend to kick for touch," says James O'Halloran of Adams. "If something is really old, it's unlikely to have a clear line of provenance. People don't want to take a chance on what it's purported to be." That means they are more likely to catalogue a painting by using vague phrases like "school of" or "attributed to" a certain artist than to risk claiming it is actually their work.

Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age are also known as Old Masters. "It's a very loose term used to describe grimy canvases that are a bit shook," says O'Halloran. "There was a time when there was a huge amount of kudos attached. If you had Old Masters, then you were a collector of note, even if the actual paintings weren't from the top drawer."

This March, a collection of 17th-century portraits attributed to the Flemish artist Justus Sustermans (1597-1681) sold at Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers for €40,000. The four paintings were life-sized portraits of exquisitely dressed and incredibly uncomfortable looking people wearing starched ruffs. They were magnificent, but you'd get a crick in the neck from looking at them. "Old Masters are much more likely to appeal to buyers in the UK and Europe than in Ireland," explains O'Halloran.

If you like history, Old Masters' landscapes are like stepping back in time. But they're not wildly exciting. Last September, a painting of figures on a bridge outside a village by the Dutch Golden Age painter Joost Cornelius Droogsloot (1586-1666) sold at Adam's for €7,000. It was a peaceful scene with lots of detail in the characters, buildings and boats.

The catalogue describes how "the repetitive nature of Droogsloot's subject matter reflects the character of the 17th-century art market which favoured the consistent production of successful works". In other words, the people who commissioned the paintings weren't looking for drama.

In general, there aren't a great number of Old Masters left in Ireland and not all of those that come up at auction are of quality. "They call them Old Bastards in the trade," says O'Halloran. "Just because it's an Old Master doesn't make it valuable. It has to have age, quality and condition."

If a painting ticks all three boxes - and a specialist is prepared to confirm that it is the work of a known artist - it may fetch a high price.

Some fortunate person, recently leafing through an old family album of drawings, spotted an interesting sketch of three female nudes. It turned out to be by the 16th-century Italian Renaissance master, Parmigianino, and is coming up for sale as part of Bonhams' sale of Old Master Paintings in London on July 5 (est €17,307 to €23,076).

Merrymakers Outside A Local Tavern, attributed Egbert Van De Poel, will be included in Herman & Wilkinson's June Swan Hall Fine Art Auction on Thursday, June 8 at 10am.


In the salerooms


A copy of the Order of Surrender (below), April 29, 1916, signed by Padraig Pearse will be auctioned at Bonhams' Fine Books, Atlases, Manuscripts and Photographs sale in London on June 14.

1916 Order of Surrender

It is one of a handful of typed copies distributed to rebel positions by Nurse Elizabeth O'Farrell and members of the Capuchin community. Widely recognised as one of the most significant documents in Irish history, it is estimated to sell between £80,000 and £100,000 (€92,000 to €140,000).

Two other copies are held by the National Library of Ireland and one, signed by Pearse and countersigned by James Connolly, at the Imperial War Museum, London. There are also three known handwritten drafts. This particular copy is unusual in that it carries a tricolour stamp depicting the Manchester Martyrs (William Allen, Michael Larkin and William O'Brien). The stamp was printed by the rebels at the time of the Rising but it's not clear if it was affixed to authenticate the order or added at a later date.

Bonhams will also hold a Jewellery Valuation Day at the Merchant Hotel in Belfast on Thursday and at 31 Molesworth Street, Dublin 2, on June 12. The valuations are free and there is no obligation to sell. See


A Jewellery and Watch Auction will take place at Herman & Wilkinson, Rathmines, Dublin 6, on Wednesday at 6.30pm.

It will be followed by the June Swan Hall Fine Art Auction, which begins at 10am on Thursday. The sale includes a number of 17th, 18th and 19th century paintings, Georgian furniture and a large collection of oriental ceramics, as well as an Irish Army uniform with an interesting history. The ownership of the uniform is attributed to Colonel Anthony T Lawlor (1898-1989) who fought in the Irish Civil War, mainly in the West of Ireland, under General Collins.

Lawlor also commanded the artillery piece that bombarded the Four Courts under the orders of General Ginger O'Connell. For further details and viewing times, see


Hibernian Antique Fairs' annual Lismore Opera Festival Antiques Art & Vintage Fair takes place in the Community Hall, Lismore, Co Waterford, tomorrow and Sunday (11am-6pm on both days). Admission is 3.50 and children go free. Further north, an AVA Antique & Collectors' Fair will take place at Ardboyne Hotel, Dublin Road, Navan, Co Meath, on Sunday (11am to 6pm). Admission €2.


The East Asian Goddess of Mercy is known as the Guanyin Bodhisattva, which translates as "The One Who Perceives the Sounds of the World".

A small cast bronze figure of Guanyin caused a bit of a stir at Whyte's Eclectic Collector sale, which took place on May 6. The little sculpture, less than 35cm high, came from the McClelland collection and was estimated to sell for €200 to €300. Following much interest from Chinese bidders, it sold for €9,000. See

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