Treasures: Take a shine to pewter
A few months ago an old lady came into Mealy's auctioneers in Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny. When she was clearing out her attic, she'd found a few items that once belonged to her father, including a couple of old pewter tankards. She didn't think that they'd be worth very much at all.
The tankards went into Mealy's Spring Sale on March 13, estimated to sell between €200 and €300. The prettier of the pair was catalogued as: "An old wrigglework pewter mug with hinged cover and a scrolled thumbpiece, decorated with a lion and birds, and applied with a scroll handle. The cover with oak leaves and acorns around a coronet." It sold for €3,605. A second plainer tankard: "A rare early quart hammerhead measure with the touch mark of Robert Martin (1665-66)" fetched €400.
Pewter is an alloy, made of tin and other metals. It was used to make dishes, drinking vessels, containers, and candlesticks. In the Golden Age of pewter (c 1550-1750), even households that could afford silver would also have used pewter tableware. Many of the drinking vessels, like the one sold at Mealy's, had lids.
Pewter was a cheap, functional metal, but it was also beautiful. When it was polished, it shone. People called it "the poor man's silver". The real poor used wood.
Wrigglework decoration is unsophisticated, charming, and easily identified by its wiggly lines. English pewterers were expert metalsmiths, but they weren't trained as artists. Ronald Michaelis, writing for The Antique Collector (1963) describes it as made by "pushing a tool with a narrow chisel-like blade along the metal, at an angle, and actually digging out a zig-zag groove by rocking the blade from side to side." Wrigglework was very popular between the mid 17th and the mid-18th centuries.
According to the antique dealer Roger Grimes, the tankard sold at Mealy's is probably English, dating from the reign of Charles II, and decorated with a symbolic English lion. He also thinks that the buyer got themselves a bargain. "Wrigglework decoration is very rare and expensive," he says.
Pewter can often be identified by a "touch marks", the trademark of the maker, but many of these marks have been worn away over time. Chargers, dishes and plates - collectively known as "sadware" - are also dated by the detailing on the rim.
In the 1980s, a colleague of Grimes went to view a large old empty house for sale in the Cotswolds. "In the drawing room was an oak plate rack running around the room, a couple of feet below the ceiling. And there, above the fireplace were the most remarkable two chargers!" Both were 18th century and both were worth a great deal of money. One was in pewter, with a double reeded rim; the other was a ceramic piece by the famous Danish potter, Thomas Toft. The owner knew they were worth a lot of money but he couldn't reach them. He procured a long linen line pole, tipped each one forward, dropped the pole, and caught them one at a time!" English pewter was regulated by a guild system from 1474 but Irish pewterers didn't have a guild of their own. This led to problems with quality control. By 1714, Lloyd's Newsletter reported: "That all new pewter sold by Seamen & other strangers under colour of English pewter, is suspicious and frequently seized upon for its badness."
"Early Irish pewter is more collectible than English because of its rarity," Grimes explains. Currently, he has a set of haystack measures (€450), so called because they resembled the haystacks of the time, for sale in his shop in Mulranny, Co Mayo.
There are plenty of fakes though. Wrigglework, for example, is not always genuine as it could be added to pieces from the correct period.
Pewter collecting became a fad in 1880s London and collectors were fair game for fraudulent dealers like Richard Neate (1880-1953), also known as "Naughty Richard". He, and others, were very good at "discovering" pieces to fill gaps in people's collections. His "discoveries" are now collectibles in their own right. As WS Gilbert wrote in his operetta, The Gondoliers (1889): "The end is easily foretold, when every blessed thing you hold, is made of silver or of gold, you long for simple pewter."
See mealys.ie and sellingantiques.co.uk/rogergrimes
In the Salerooms
Some people think that gemstones have healing powers (some other people think that they're bananas). Whatever your opinion on this, it's certainly true that turquoise has a remarkable history as a healing stone. It has been used as protection against falls by Turkish cavalry, as an oriental protection against all evil things, and in Tibet, to clear blockages of self-expression. It's also the birthstone for those born in late March and early April. The next auction at O'Reilly's Auction Rooms, Dublin, which takes place on Wednesday at 10am, includes some nice examples. There's an 18ct gold and turquoise marine link bracelet (pictured), in textured satin finish (est €1,800 to €2,500) and a pair of turquoise and diamond daisy style clip earrings, set with diamonds and mounted in 14ct white gold (est €1,200 to €1,800). There are also some interesting animal-shaped pieces in the sale: a diamond pavé pointer hound brooch (est €3,500 to €4,500); a ruby, emerald and diamond parrot brooch by Kutchinsky, (est €4,000 to €5,000); and a diamond pavé scottie dog brooch, with black and red enamel coat, mounted in platinum (€3,500 to €4,500). Viewing is from Sunday to Wednesday, see oreillysfineart.com.
"Miss Hayes… is a graceful, queen-like person, of medium stature, with a fair oval face. Her face wears an intellectual expression without much animation… her manner is perfectly easy and self-possessed; her gesticulation appropriate and graceful." The journalist, writing for the Far West News, San Francisco, described the Irish soprano Catherine Hayes. A marble bust of Hayes, which captures the presence that the journalist describes (only without the colour) fetched €3,200 at Mealy's Spring Sale on March 13. It was carved by the sculptor Richard Barter in 1863. In the same sale, a large blue and white Chinese bottle vase, decorated with pomegranates and flying bats, sold for €10,000. A painting by Charles Henry Cook (1830-1903), A Welcome Rest, fetched €3,600. The painting shows a group of characters clustered by the edge of a Killarney lake and sharing something out of a big black bottle. A pub mirror advertising "Corbett's Old Irish Whiskey, Belfast" and measuring 196 x 41 cm, sold for €3,400. See mealys.ie.
A pair of Game of Thrones-style bronze doors from the central Dublin nightclub Howl at the Moon fetched €12,500, four times their top estimate, at the sale conducted Victor Mee Auctions in partnership with Niall Mullen, which took place on March 12 and 13. "The competition in the room and online sparked several bidding wars," said Mullen, delighted that the bronze doors were staying in the country. Other furnishings sold included a two-metre square French chandelier (€2,800) but the surprise, on the second day of the sale, was when the only known set of portraits of all taoisigh before Leo Varadkar, sold for €37,000. They were the work of "John Wilson" the pseudonym of Zhang Yi, a Chinese student who painted them in his Rathmines studio. They were reportedly purchased by publican Louis FitzGerald who plans to hang them in Dublin's Arlington Hotel. See niallmullenantiques.com and victormeeauctions.ie.