Treasures: Values rising for centenary
Ireland’s fine arts, antiques and collectables column
'We have done right. People will say hard things of us now but later on they will praise us." Padraig Pearse's final letter to his mother was written from Kilmainham prison on the morning of his execution. It's a heart breaking document and Pearse's eerily accurate speculation that the leaders of the Easter Rising would be remembered by posterity must have been cold comfort indeed.
Now, posterity is upon us.
As the countdown to the 1916 centenary continues, it's clear Pearse was right. The Easter Rising is recognised as one of the most iconic episodes in Irish history. Though historians may argue about how it should be celebrated, there's no question that we're approaching the centenary of a massively significant turning point. And, because 100 years is a relatively short time, there are plenty of 1916-related objects in circulation.
Auctioneers are obviously expecting a lot of activity on this front over the coming months, but 1916 memorabilia has always been collectible. Museums took it seriously from the get-go and private collectors from all walks of life have made a significant contribution to the way the story of the Easter Rising is told.
"The buyers of this material have always been people who are passionate about Irish history," says Kieran O'Boyle of Adam's (adams.ie). "I've been to apartments where the collection is worth more than the apartment that's housing it. There's a lot of scholarship around the event and the people who have always collected are the backbone of it. They deserve a lot of credit for collecting and archiving material."
Anything related to the signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic is especially valuable. The top lot in Adam's History Sale, which takes place on May 12, is a 1916 bronze medal awarded to Kathleen Daly Clarke (1879-1972). The medal was issued by the Irish Government in 1941 and awarded to those with recognised military service during Easter Week 1916. It is inscribed "SEACHTAIN NA CÁSCA 1916". Mounted on a green and orange poplin ribbon, the medal was designed by a corporal in the Army Corps of Engineers, although the depiction of the death of Cúchulainn on the flip side is not a million miles away from Oliver Sheppard's 1911 sculpture of the same scene, currently in the GPO.
The medal is estimated to sell for between €25,000 and €35,000. Kathleen's husband, Tom Clarke, was the first signatory of the Proclamation. Kathleen was also a political figure in her own right and became the first female Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1939. Reputedly, De Valera suggested she should stand aside in favour of a member of the Pearse family. Kathleen riposted that Tom Clarke's wife would stand aside for nobody.
The medal, however, is her own. Tom Clarke's medal was auctioned, also at Adam's, in 2006 when it fetched €110,000. A similar medal, without the connection to the 1916 leadership, is in the same sale with an estimate of €1,500 to €2,000.
Prior to the issue of the medals, a poplin armband in green and gold was awarded to 1916 veterans in 1935 to mark the 19th anniversary of the rebellion. As the first decoration given to the veterans, the armbands are both prized and scarce. One is included in Whyte's Sale Of History And Literature on May 9, where it is estimated to sell between €200 and €300 (whytes.ie). Adam's have two in their current sale. One is mounted in a display case with a decommissioned revolver (€400 to €600); the other is part of a wider collection of medals belonging to Sean Bermingham, 'C' Comp., 1st Batt. Irish Volunteers (€5,000 to €10,000).
This collection includes a 1916 survivor's medal, a gilded medal awarded to surviving participants at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966. These are rarer, and more valuable, than the earlier 1916 medals. Online forums warn that a number of convincing fakes are in circulation, so auctioneers will be carefully checking all medals.
Copies of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic are much easier to verify. The originals, printed in haste and under duress, show signs of strain. Experts know to look out for the dodgy R in the heading and a capital 'F' that was given an extra bar to change it to an 'E'. "It would be difficult to fake," O'Boyle points out.
"They ran out of lower case 'e' in the third paragraph and had to change the font. When they reprinted it the week after the Rising they changed the font, although later copies were closer imitations of the original."
There are an estimated 50 original copies in existence and they tend to sell for around €100,000. This sale includes a rare handbill version of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic (€3,000 to €5,000) printed during Easter Week 1916 in the area controlled by the Volunteers. Only three other copies are recorded.
Most people in possession of 1916 and Civil War memorabilia hold it in high regard and have a clear idea of its value. Or so you'd like to think. In 2014, the auctioneer David Herman (hermanwilkinson.ie) came into possession of around 30 photographs that had been rescued during a chance meeting at the recycling centre. They included photographs of Michael Collins, the most collectible of all Irish political figures, and one of Kitty Kiernan standing beside Collins' grave. The photographs sold for around €2,000.