Life Home & Garden

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Why you shouldn't open a message in a bottle if you find one

Victor Mee with the whiskey collection ahead of the auction
Victor Mee with the whiskey collection ahead of the auction
The English Leprechaun with bottle and harp
Mystery item: the sleeper

Who doesn't love to find a message in a bottle? That was the idea behind a Guinness publicity stunt of 1954.

That summer, the company dropped 50,000 sealed bottles in different locations in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. Each bottle contained a message asking the finder to write to Guinness Exports Ltd (GEL), in Liverpool, and let the firm know where the bottle was found. The stunt was a resounding success. So much so, that Guinness did it again. In 1959, as part of the Guinness Bi-centenary celebrations, a further 150,000 bottles were dropped into the Atlantic Ocean from 38 different ships over a six-week period.

Those bottles are still being washed ashore. A film crew found one in the Arctic in 2002 and, in 2017, one of them turned up on a beach in Nova Scotia.

If you find one, don't open it. They're worth much more unopened (but can you imagine having the discipline not to open a message in a bottle from the 1950s?). The 1959 bottles were embossed with the outline of the North American continent, and sealed to protect the documents inside.

The prettiest of the inclusions was a certificate from "the Office of King Neptune". Collectors love them and they tend to get snapped up quickly on eBay, but opened bottles don't make much money. Earlier this month a Texas vendor sold an opened bottle, without the inserts, for US $97.50 (around €84).

The person behind the Guinness bottle drop was the inventive AW Fawcett, managing director of Guinness Exports Ltd (GEL), who was also responsible for decorating GEL's bright yellow delivery lorries with model leprechauns. There are two GEL leprechaun truck ornaments coming up for sale in Victor Mee's Auction of Irish pub memorabilia, which takes place on Tuesday.

Both are around 18 inches tall, made of rubberoid, and designed to be mounted on the roof of sales vans and delivery lorries.

"There were eight different types of leprechaun, designed for different international markets. We have an American and an English one," says Bryan Mee, auctioneer. Both leprechauns (est. €600 to €800 each) are carrying bottles of Guinness in one hand and harp in the other.

The American leprechaun is a jolly-looking creature wearing a red and white spotted bow tie. The English one looks like he'd put a curse on you if you took his bottle of stout.

What the auctioneers are hoping for, though, is competing collectors of Guinness memorabilia (of which there are many) with gaps in their leprechaun collection. It happens.

On May 5 last, a figure of a leprechaun dressed in a red pointed hat, green coat and red trousers, holding a bottle of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout and a gilt harp, went under the hammer at Whyte's (est. €300 to €500).

Like the pair at Victor Mee, the leprechaun was used by GEL to advertise stout to the overseas markets and came with a steel attachment to mount it on the roof of a vehicle. It surprised everyone by selling for €2,900 to a privately owned museum in Dublin.

Victor Mee's pub memorabilia auction also includes more serious items, many of which came from the collection of John Sweeney, a third-generation publican from Ballyshannon, Co Donegal.

The collection includes a Mitchell's 'Cruiskeen Lawn Old Irish Whisky' mirror, dating from the early 1900s (est. €4,000 to €6,000). "Mitchell's made whiskey in Belfast but they did very little advertising and they only ever made two types of mirror," Mee explains.

"This one would have been given to John Sweeney's grandfather when it was new, shortly after he bought the Commercial Hotel in Ballyshannon." In the ownership of one careful family, the mirror (3 x 4 foot) is in very good nick.

Sweeney's grandfather also hung onto to an early 20th-century bottle of Cruiskeen Lawn whiskey (est. €4,000 to €6,000), and had the sense to keep it in its protective paper sleeve.

"There's very little fading on the label or evaporation of the whiskey," says Mee. "It's more of an investment piece than a drinker, only we did have a guy who came in to look at it yesterday and he says that he actually drinks the whiskies that he collects! I thought it was sacrilege, but each to his own."

The sale also includes a bottle of Dunville's VR Old Irish Whiskey (est. €800 to €1,200), made in Belfast and winner of the Gold Medal for Irish whiskey at the Paris Exhibition of 1900.

Time has taken its toll on the bottle which, although it has the original seal in place, has evaporated to the extent that it's only three-quarters full.

Viewing continues at Victor Mee Auctions, Cloverhill, Belturbet, Co Cavan, today and over the weekend. There's an element of theatricality in the display.

"Victor has a thing about setting something up so that people get an idea of what it has like at the time," Bryan Mee explains.

"As you walk into the auction rooms there's a bar on your right and a shop on your left, just like it would have been in an Irish country pub." The mahogany bar, including the mirrored back and copper counter (est. €3,500 to €5,500), comes from a pub in Dublin.

"There's a real move among publicans to install old bars and go back to the old way of running a pub with no TV or radio."


In the Salerooms

Fonsie Mealy

Mystery item: the sleeper

A strange little object stole the show at Fonsie Mealy's Chatsworth Summer Fine Art Sale which took place on July 10 and 11. The sleeper: "a rare and unusual ethnographic (possibly Native American) item, modelled as a grotesque figure spread on torso, with hollowed and shape box on back, highlighted with painted faces". The object (est. €100 to €150, pictured) sold for €22,000.

Leaving everyone scratching their heads and still none the wiser as to what it actually was. It looks like a wooden tortoise with a box instead of a shell on its back. There was another, milder, surprise when an unremarkable looking clock proved the top lot. The clock, catalogued as an "exceptionally fine and rare mid-19th century nickel-cased eight-day chronometer timepiece" was just 17cm high and had been in the ownership of a family in the West of Ireland for more than 80 years. It sold for €25,000.

A small 18th-century Penal chalice, formerly belonging to the Mansfield Family of Morristown Lattin, Co Kildare (est. 700 to €1,000) sold for €4,000. See


There's everything from Hermès handbags to Edwardian rocking horses at Dolan's Connemara Auction, which takes place in Ballyconneely on the August Bank Holiday (Monday 6 and Tuesday 7), beginning at 12.30pm on each day.

Paintings include the some of the big names of Irish art: a pastel and charcoal work by Sean Keating, Fear agus Bean ón Oiléan (est. €24,000 to €30,000); An Cheathru Rua by Charles Lamb (est. €10,000 to €12,000); and Fishermen In The West by John Behan (est. €4,000 to €6,000). The auction also includes work by Patrick Hennessy, Maurice MacGonigal, John Shinnors, and George Russell (AE). Additionally, this year's selection has handbags by Gucci, Louis Vuitton and a Hermès black & gilt-metal mounted bag (est. €2,800 to €3,500) plus an Edwardian rocking horse (est. €600 to €800). Viewing from July 29, see


A small untitled piece of sculpture (est. €400 to €600) in bronze and coloured plastic by Edward Delaney sold for €3,200 at Whyte's Summer Art auction of July 9.

The Samson Riddle, a series of six lithographic prints by Delaney, sold for €750. A small sculpture, Céilí Dancers by Oisín Kelly, sold for €640, while a ceramic bird of prey, made by Kelly at the Kilkenny Design Workshops, fetched €400.

The sale included a number of interesting pieces by Harry Kernoff whose 1916-1966 Designs for Commemorating the Easter Rising Lily of the Valley and Celtic Warrior Head sold for €1,100. See

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