Life Home & Garden

Wednesday 22 May 2019

Treasures: The collection of a lifetime

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

An Irish 18th-century mahogany low boy
An Irish 18th-century mahogany low boy
A pair of George III silver soup tureens from the O’Keeffe collection

Eleanor Flegg

Sometimes the story behind a piece of art or an antique is the most interesting thing about it.

In the trade, it's known as provenance. Antique dealers and auctioneers will often use the record of ownership as a guide to authenticity. If the story of a piece checks out, it's more likely to be genuine. But, even if the provenance isn't needed to establish the authenticity of a piece, a good story can make it more interesting.

Philip Sheppard, auctioneer, remembers the story of a painting of cattle, hung in a bar somewhere in the American mid-west. A couple of ranchers, drinking at the bar, began to argue about it.

One of them, claiming that his own (real) cattle were better than the cattle in the painting, pulled out his gun and shot though the canvas. The bar owner brought the painting in to the local museum. The conservators concluded that the painting was mediocre, at best, but much more interesting now that it had been shot. It was returned to the bar, bullet hole and all, where it became a tourist attraction.

A pair of George III silver soup tureens from the O’Keeffe collection
A pair of George III silver soup tureens from the O’Keeffe collection

There's a collection with an interesting story behind it coming up for auction at Sheppard's three-day sale which takes place at Coolattin House, Co Wicklow, from Tuesday to Thursday. The collection, which includes antique furniture and contemporary paintings, belonged to the solicitor Gerard O'Keeffe who died in 2015.

O'Keeffe qualified as a solicitor in the 1960s and lived at Park House, near Kanturk in north Co Cork. The house is most famous for burning down in 2001, taking most of O'Keeffe's collection with it. O'Keeffe only escaped by jumping from an upstairs window. Some pieces were saved, but a great deal was lost in the fire. "I think he lost a Jack Yeats," Sheppard reflects.

Park House was rebuilt, in the same style as its 19th-century predecessor, and O'Keeffe began a second phase of collecting.

"He got better at it," says Sheppard. "His taste sharpened after the fire. I remember thinking that the new collection was more focused, and more meaningful to him." The unusual aspect of the collection was that it juxtaposed antique furniture with contemporary art. "I was surprised to see how the old and the new pieces related to each other," Sheppard explains. "I'd never seen it work so well. My conclusion was that good work is good work and they all sit together."

Park House was sold after O'Keeffe's death and the collection will be displayed, along with pieces from other clients, in Coolattin House, Shillelagh, Co Wicklow. The house, once the home of the Earls of Fitzwilliam, now overlooks a golf club. Unoccupied but well maintained, it offers a suitable backdrop for the auctioneers to stage their sale. The pieces don't have a shared history with the house or, often, with each other, but the auctioneers find that people like to see things in context. It makes it easier for them to imagine how the objects might work in their own home.

That said, you'd want a pretty large home to accommodate a 620cm long (over 20 foot) George III period mahogany four pillar dining table (est. €30,000 to €50,000). The table comes from the O'Keeffe collection and may be the work of the well-known furniture makers, Williams and Gibton of Dublin. More manageable pieces from the same collection include an Irish 18th-century mahogany low boy, a chest of drawers, raised on scallop shell-headed cabriole legs with claw feet and decorated with a scallop shell panel (est. €1,500 to €2,500). At 74cm high and 90cm wide, it's the kind of thing that would fit in nicely in a modern house.

"It dates from around 1750 when ceilings were lower," Sheppard explains. "Ceilings got higher as the century went by and the furniture was scaled to the rooms."

The sale also includes a pair of George III silver soup tureens (est. €5,000 to €8,000) as well as many less expensive items, including a 19th-­century brass dog collar (est. €30 to €50).

O'Keeffe was a great collector of books, both legal volumes and others.

The sale includes many of these, but his specialist collections of books on Georgia O'Keefe and Oscar Wilde will be sold separately, by Sheppard's, in September.

O'Keeffe was also keen to establish a direct link between the American artist Georgia O'Keefe (1887-1986) and Kanturk. Georgia O'Keefe had Irish heritage and is considered a very important artist. In November 2014, one of her floral paintings sold for $44.4m, setting a record for art by a female artist.

To trace her lineage back to Kanturk would have been a fine thing for the locality and O'Keeffe was passionate in his quest.

At the time of his death, he was actively engaged in commissioning a memorial to Georgia O'Keefe in Kanturk.

In 2011, he published a book: The Ascent of the O'Keeffes: Tracing for the First Time the Direct Lineage of Famed American Artist Georgia O'Keefe to Kanturk, Co Cork, Ireland.

But whether the book actually establishes that lineage, or whether it just claims that it does, is a moot point. "He doesn't cite a primary source," Sheppard observes. So the jury's still out on that one… It's a bit like the bullet hole through the painting.

If O'Keeffe's claim proved to be extravagant, it would add a bit of spice to his collection.


In the Salerooms

Morgan O'Driscoll


The artist Sean McSweeney (1935-2018), who died earlier this month, is widely mourned.

Often, his work brings out the beauty of unassuming subjects, such as the bog land of Co Sligo, where he lived. One of these Bogland Flowers (est. €5,000 to €7,000), a triptych, is coming up for sale in Morgan O'Driscoll's Irish Art Online Auction, which continues until Monday (bidding will end between 6.30pm and 9.30pm). In the same sale, Stroll in the Parkland (est. €4,000 to €6,000) by John Butler Yeats RHA (1839-1922), shows an impressionistic view of a lady out walking beneath trees in full leaf. Work by living artists ranges from Circus in Town by Martin Gale (est. €800 to €1,200) to Simeon Stafford's St Ives (pictured, est. €1,500 to €2,500).

Viewing continues in Morgan O'Driscoll's Skibbereen offices today (11am to 5pm) and on Monday (11am to 3pm). See

Matthews Auction Rooms

Timed to coincide with the Hinterland Literary Festival, the next sale conducted by Matthews Auction Rooms takes place tomorrow and Sunday in the Dukes Building, 7 Market Street, Kells, Co Meath, beginning at 1.30pm on each day.

Auctioneer Damien Matthews describes it as: "a good country auction with lots of interesting things, including 60 lots of antiquarian books." The interesting things include a collection of around 50 Edwardian photographs (est. €600 to €900) showing an African safari: "lots of big game dispatched, as well as some sensitive images of the natives in original dress." Viewing continues today (11am to 5pm) and from 10am on both days of sale. See


Jack B Yeats led the way at Bonhams' Modern British and Irish Art Sale, which took place in London on June 13.

Donnelly's Hollow, a large painting by Yeats, sold for €391,475. It showed the natural amphitheatre at the Curragh, Co Kildare where the Irish boxer Dan Donnelly defeated the English champion, George Cooper, in 1815. Yeats loved boxing, and the auctioneers described the painting as one in a series that "revisited in maturity the obsessions of the artist's youth".

In the same sale, a drawing in pencil, felt tip pen and biro by Laurence Stephen Lowry entitled W Dublin sold for €28,630. See

Antiques & Vintage Fairs

There's a great round up of fairs around the country this weekend, kicking off with the inaugural Mount Juliet Antiques & Fine Art Fair, organised by Hibernian Antiques Fairs on tomorrow and Sunday in aid of the Jack & Jill foundation.

Also on Sunday, the South Dublin Antiques & Vintage Fair will run at the Royal Marine Hotel, Dun Laoghaire, from 11am to 6pm. The event is organised by Vintage Ireland and admission is ¤3.50.

Up north, there will be an Ava Antiques Fair in Glenavon House Hotel, Cookstown, Co Tyrone, on Sunday. The fair will run from 11am to 5pm and admission is £2.

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