Friday 22 March 2019

Treasures: Skip and miss a valuable discovery

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

Attic find: A landscape by American artist John Lavalle
Attic find: A landscape by American artist John Lavalle

Eleanor Flegg

If David Herman, auctioneer and home clearance sale expert, was going to start a political party, he'd start an anti-skip party. He can't stand the sight of the things.

That's because he's got a good inking of how much heritage is being carelessly thrown away. In next week's Swan Fine Art auction, Herman will be selling paintings worth €10,000 from one house that narrowly escaped going in to a skip. They were rescued by the skin of their teeth.

The paintings belonged to an elderly couple who died, leaving their house in south Dublin to be sold by members of their extended family. The couple had no children of their own and the burden of clearing the house fell to their niece who, doubtless, had other things to do with her time. It was a mammoth task. So she hired a skip and set to separating the potentially valuable items from the dross. The trouble is, unless you have a trained eye, it can be hard to tell the difference.

Luckily, the neighbour saw the big yellow skip in the garden. Possibly, they knew a bit about the history of the house. They may even have been aware that the deceased couple had been part-time art dealers who had spent the 1950s and early 1960s travelling back and forth between Ireland and the United States, collecting paintings as they went. Or maybe they were just sticking their oar in. Either way, they saved the day when they approached the niece just as she was chucking stuff into the skip and asked: "Would you not have someone out to have a look at that stuff."

Happily the niece took their advice and invited Ross O Súilleabháin, of Herman & Wilkinson, to look through the contents of the house.

There, in the attic, was a stack of scruffy folios filled with watercolour and oil paintings, around 250 artworks in total. They didn't look like much but his expert eye spotted that some were by Frank Carson (1881-1968).

In fairness, Frank Carson's art work is not going to set the world on fire. He was an American artist, founder of the Provincetown Art School where he taught from 1918 until 1933. Here, he's more or less unknown, but the Americans take him relatively seriously. "Medium-sized watercolours by Carson sell for between €800 and €1,200 but the oils sell for between €2,000 and €3,000," says O'Súilleabháin. At the time of writing, he's cataloguing the collection, which will go on sale as part of the Swan Fine Art Auction on Wednesday and Thursday next. "When you add it up together you probably have the guts of €10,000."

Encouraged by the discovery, O Súilleabháin dug deeper into the attic and found a collection of works by another American artist, John Lavalle (1896-1971). These paintings are mainly oils and O Súilleabháin estimates that they will sell for between €1,000 and €2,000 each, with a collective value of between €5,000 and €8,000. "They were going into the skip along with the newspapers," he complains. Part of the problem was that the paintings were unframed: the watercolours in battered folios and the oils stacked in the attic. None of them looked as though they were valuable at all. If they had been hung on the wall, they might have stood a better chance of survival.

Clearing out the house of someone that has died is a sad and difficult job. The objects that were precious to the deceased often turn out to be worthless and their collections, lovingly amassed over time, become meaningless once their owner is gone. The great temptation is to hire a skip, roll up your sleeves, and get the job done. But valuable items can be lost in the process. He recalls a recent incident when someone came in with a collection of late 19th-century archaeological photographs. "They were meant to dump them, but they brought them in to us instead," he remembers. The photographs sold for €5,400 at Herman & Wilkinson in March 2018.

"It's always the small stuff that turns out to be valuable," Herman laments. "And that's what people throw away. They have the skips in before we get there and they get rid of all the small items that look as though they're not worth much. We'd often get a call from someone saying that they've cleaned out the house and want us to come and look at the furniture. It's too late then. Or else two people are clearing out the house. One of them is a hoarder and the other is a thrower-outer. We just have to get there before the thrower-outer."

Most auctioneers will come out to a house without charge to assess what's needed. If the owner decides to sell, the auctioneers make their money on the commission. "We're in a unique position because we have the weekly auction as well as the Swan Hall Fine Art Auction," O Súilleabháin explains. The latter is for potentially valuable antiques; the weekly auction is for just about anything else. The Swan Hall Fine Art auction takes place at Herman & Wilkinson, Rathmines, Dublin 6, on Wednesday at 6pm and Thursday at 10am.


In the salerooms


This year Adam's Christmas auction of Fine Jewellery & Watches will take place on Tuesday. The selection includes a range of coral jewellery including coral and gem-set cocktail ring by Dior (est. €9,000 to €11,000) designed as a sea anemone.

A gold and coral Alhambra Necklace (est. €10,000 to €15,000) by Van Cleef & Arpels (c 1970) is the same as one of the three Alhambra necklaces worn and loved by Princess Grace of Monaco. See


The last of Bonhams' five annual Modern British and Irish Art auctions takes place on Tuesday in Knightsbridge, London.

Irish pieces in the sale include Rory Breslin's Boru Mask (est. €4,500 to €6,700), Laura Cronin's painting, A Snowy Walk (est. €3,350 to €5,600) and Jack B Yeats' Homeward Bound (est. €4,500 to €6,700). See


"The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel," said Andy Warhol. Dubious concept, but his art became iconic.

A limited-edition porcelain wall-plaque of Warhol's 1967 Factory Additions print of Marilyn Monroe (est. €1,500 to €2,000) is going under the hammer at Whyte's Christmas auction, on December 9 at 2pm. See

Morgan O'Driscoll

Bidding on Morgan O'Driscoll's Irish Art Online Auction ends on Monday between 6.30pm and 9.45pm. See

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