Imagine a pale yellow mug just over four inches high. It's thick-rimmed and clunky with a gilded handle. The hand-painted mug is decorated with a sketchy-looking stone monument and the words "Céad Míle Fáilte" above and "Duke" below. It wasn't made in Ireland - its base is stamped with the name of the maker, McFarren, in Corona del Mar, California.
It's an incongruous object and definitely not a work of art. You might pay a euro for it in a charity shop, but you'd be more likely to keep your hand in your pocket.
That's unless you stopped to wonder - who was the "Duke" named on the mug?
Enter John Wayne.
"Duke" was the nickname of the American actor and director John Wayne (1907-1979). From the early 1950s, he was in the habit of giving specially made mugs to cast and crew members on his projects. All of these are now collectible. They're also easily faked. If you're lucky enough to have one, you would need to demonstrate provenance before a reputable auctioneer would consider selling it. They'd want to know who it was given to and how you came to have it. Once that was established, the more famous the recipient, the more valuable the mug would be.
This particular mug (above) came from the estate of the Irish-born actor Maureen O'Hara (1920-2015). Wayne had given it to her at the end of the production of The Quiet Man (1952). The mug was put up for auction as part of Bonhams' sale, The Estate of Maureen O'Hara, which took place in New York on November 29, 2016. The estimate was $500 to $700. It sold for $8,500 (€8,021).
"It was probably one of the last sales from the golden age of Hollywood celebrity," says Catherine Williamson, director of entertainment memorabilia in Bonhams, Los Angeles. "Who else from the 1940s is still around?"
O'Hara was a Dublin girl. She grew up in Ranelagh and trained from the age of 14 at the Abbey Theatre. She was 'spotted' at a screen test in London and her first major role was in Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939). The Quiet Man is her best-known film. It's the one where an Irish-American (Wayne) returns from the US to his hometown and falls in love with a local lass (O'Hara). Her brother disapproves and withholds the dowry. An epic fistfight ensues and everyone lives happily ever after.
"The stuff from The Quiet Man was my favourite," Williamson admits. She describes the auction as a "fun sale with a little bit of everything", but notes that celebrity memorabilia has a hierarchy.
The most valuable material is directly related to the work that the celebrity was famous for. O'Hara was known as a film star, so her movie-related material is more valuable than her personal stuff. The more popular the movie is, the greater the interest among collectors.
"We had a lot of film scripts in the sale," Williamson explains. "The scripts from famous films sold for much more than those from less popular ones."
For example, O'Hara's annotated screenplay of How Green Was My Valley (1941) sold for $4,000 (€3,793). John Ford's working script for The Quiet Man, annotated by O'Hara, sold for $50,000 (€47,406).
If clothes or jewellery have been worn on screen, they will be worth very much more than the rest of the actor's wardrobe. The tweed jacket (below) O'Hara wore as Mary Kate Danagher in The Quiet Man fetched $16,250 (€15,409), whereas a not dissimilar jacket worn in publicity shots, but not on film, sold for $500 (€474).
The second level in Williamson's hierarchy of value consists of personal objects that are related to the celebrity's career, but not used on-screen. O'Hara's Duke mug would come into this category. So would the juicy cache of love letters from director Ford (1894-1973) to her. These sold for $75,000 (€70,774).
In the letters, Ford's sincerity is palpable: "I'm so grateful for the few weeks of happiness you've given me (few weeks! It was a lifetime!) You're still my darling loyal girl - come hell or high water & I'll always love & revere you. Please think kindly of me, not much - a little bit."
It's not so clear to what extent O'Hara reciprocated his affections or how this was expressed, but Ford's letters give the impression of a man with expectations.
"The letters weren't a total secret, but there's more there than she let on," says Williamson. At one stage, O'Hara contemplated burning the letters, but must have changed her mind.
The final, and lowest, level in Williamson's hierarchy of celebrity memorabilia is stuff that happened to belong to somebody famous but is not associated with their work.
"Furniture and fine art is what it is," she explains. "If it was owned by a celebrity, it might bump the price a little bit, but not more than 20pc."
Although the sale took place in New York, the auctioneers reported a considerable Irish interest, with between 15 and 20pc of bidders registered in Ireland. History doesn't relate whether their bids were successful.
Should your appetite for celebrity memorabilia be whetted, Jackie Collins: A Life in Chapters - the estate of the novelist who died in 2015 - is up for grabs at Bonhams Los Angeles on May 16 and 17 (see bonhams.com).
Online bidding brings us a little closer to the stars.
A landscape painting by Paul Henry was leading a quiet life - it had been with the same family since the 1930s - before it went under the hammer at Whyte's Irish and International Art Auction on February 27.
The painting, 'Lough Altan In Donegal' (below), carried an ambitious estimate of €60,000 to €80,000, but sold for €58,000. Among four works by Louis le Brocquy, 'Study For Riverrun: Procession with Lilies' (est €40,000 to €60,000) sold for €46,000.
The painting was inspired by a newspaper photograph of girls' in First Communion dresses, taken in Dublin in the late 1930s. 'Life Study (Self)' (est €30,000 to €50,000), also by Le Brocquy, sold for €34,000. 'Fresh Horses' (est €40,000 to €60,000) painted by Jack B Yeats c.1914 sold for €42,000.
The painting was once owned by the actor Peter O'Toole. For full results, see whytes.ie.
Still life ran deep at Adam's At Home Auction of February 26, with 'Still Life With Wine Cooler And Flowers', an oil painting by Cecil Kennedy (1905-1997), selling for €14,000.
Another of Kennedy's works, 'Still Life With Vase Of Flowers (Glass)' sold for €10,000 - both paintings exceeding the upper estimate by €4,000 and €3,000 respectively. A set of 25 views of Dublin in hand-coloured aquatints by James Malton (c.1780s) sold for €13,000 and a vintage Louis Vuitton stencil monogram double wardrobe steamer trunk (c.1930) for €7,500.
A large Dun Emer wool carpet in a stylised Celtic pattern, however, failed to live up to high expectations. Last September, Adam's sold a Dun Emer carpet of similar proportions for €10,000. That carpet was puce in colour, with a central medallion of Celtic knot work, its borders decorated with Celtic style birds on a navy background. The one in the current sale went in with a conservative estimate of (€2,000 to €4,000) and sold for €1,800. For full results, see adams.ie.
ANTIQUES & VINTAGE FAIRS
This Sunday, a fair organised by Vintage Ireland will take place in Clontarf Castle Hotel in Dublin.
Expect a range of paintings and artwork, alongside antique and vintage jewellery, vintage costume jewellery, antique and vintage furniture and a wide range of rare books, coins and other collectibles. The event runs from 11am-6pm and admission is €3.50. See vintageireland.eu.
The following weekend, the National Antiques Art & Vintage Fair will run in the South Court Hotel, Limerick, on Saturday (10am-4pm) and Sunday, (11am-6pm), March 18 and 19. Saturday's opening times have been adjusted to accommodate the Ireland v England rugby match! Admission is €5 (including a raffle ticket) and children go free. See hibernianantiquefairs.com.