Irish auctioneers Mealy’s have a 36-year history of collaborating with Christie’s to sell major collections and, although the crème de la crème may have been offered in London in May, their recent sale of the treasures at Mount Congreve, Co Waterford was far from a matter of crumbs from a rich man’s table.
Nor, one imagines, was it much of a hardship
for Mealy's to agree to 'streamline' their buyer's premium to
accord with Christie's 25% figure, rather than their usual 20%
inclusive of tax.
Certainly the contents of the Congreve
family's Georgian mansion were what the market was looking for.
They ranged from the very finest - 91 lots that brought a sell-out
hammer total of £2.8m at Christie's King Street on May 23 - to the
typical country house mix of the rare and the routine offered on
the premises on July 10-11 in a sale overseen by Mealy's.
It has been years since the last great Irish
country house auction - the Abbeylix House sale by Mealy's in 1995.
Although there have been fine individual 'on the premises'
dispersals, such as the €3m Luggala, Co Wicklow, sale in 2006, and
others consolidated at one fine venue, the country house sale
seemed as close to extinction in Ireland as it has become in
This one however came along at a time of the
country's worst economic crisis since the 1930s.
That said, a number of the treasures at
Mount Congreve, Co Waterford, were provenanced to Christie's house
sales in post-Blitz-era London - the Lionel de Rothschild sale in
Kensington in April 1942 and the Viscountess Harcourt sale in
Belgravia in October 1943 - so perhaps timing isn't everything
provided the contents are right.
"We were confident," said George Gerard
Mealy, who conducted the sale held by the Castleconner, Co Kilkenny
auctioneers. "There is still money out there, even in Ireland, for
items of exceptional quality. They loosened up money people have
been holding onto and live internet bidding brought in the
Above: Regency period mahogany Carlton
House desk - €82,000 (£68,330) at Mealy's Mount Congreve
The 1100 lots in the Mealy's sale, which
included everything from an €82,000 (£68,330) Carlton House desk to
a €90 (£75) riding saddle, notched up €2.5m (£2.08m), with a
results sheet showing some 40 five-figure hammer prices.
Country house provenance is obviously a
factor among trade bidders, but 'country house fever' also applies
at lower price levels.
"With close to 15,000 viewers, the sale
attracted huge interest from the Waterford community, all of whom
were acutely aware of the house, but few of whom had ever seen
inside it," said Mr Mealy. "Hence, there was frantic bidding for
lower-value items as local people battled for souvenirs from the
Of the 800 lots which concern this report
(the rest were books and wine) about half were sold for
three-figure sums, generally comfortably above estimate. From a
c.1600-20 Palermo albarello at €850 (£708) to a late-Victorian
mantel clock at £340 (£280), and from a c.1815, 28-piece
Chamberlain's Worcester Imari part-tea service at €950 (£790) to a
19th century walnut chest at €620 (£515) there was pretty well
something for all interests.
The Congreve family had added pieces to the
house since it was built around 1760, although the great love of
the last family member at the house, Ambrose Congreve, who died
last year aged 104, was the world-renowned gardens which, as far as
the sale went, were a beautiful backdrop rather than a revenue
And although everything in the garden wasn't
perfect (being instructed to sell, the auctioneers exercised their
discretion in letting a number of lots go below estimate) with a
90% selling rate and a total 25% above pre-sale hopes, it was about
as lovely as it gets.
Christie's may have taken the best of the
silver, a £285,000 épergne by Thomas Pitts, leaving a c.1718 kettle
to lead the Mealy's offering at a mid-estimate £2200, but in other
areas Mount Congreve had much to offer.
The London trade dominated buying in the
upper reaches, with Irish privates and some strong French and
Italian competition for the Continental material not far
As at the Christie's sale, English
furniture took the top price but French and Italian material was
also in keen demand.
The best-seller was a 6ft (1.83m) wide
Regency mahogany Carlton House desk, a classic example illustrated
on these pages with that extra mark of quality - a stamped Bramah
lock to the central section. Estimated at €80,000-100,000, it took
From a century earlier came a pair of c.1720
carved giltwood and gilt-gesso side tables now with inset, 3ft 5in
wide, 2ft deep (1.05m x 61cm) breccia marble tops. There had been
restorations and replacements to the swags and frieze carvings but,
against an €18,000-25,000 estimate, the tables made €46,000
Great cut-glass chandeliers, large
classic pieces with inverted dish coronas and glass drops, were in
strong demand despite most of them having undergone restoration and
The top-seller was the latest, largest and
least restored - a late 18th or early 19th century eight-light
example, 5ft high and 3ft 4in diameter (1.52 x 1.02m), which
tripled lower expectations when it made £45,000 (£37,500).
Just behind, and also tripling the lower
estimate, was a mid-18th century, 5ft (1.52m) high, ten-light
example, which took €44,000 (£36,670), and a mid-18th century,
six-light chandelier, 3ft 4in (1.02m) high, which doubled the lower
estimate at €16,000 (£13,330).
Unsurprisingly the Waterford mansion had
examples of the county's renowned cut glass - both of which left
estimates behind. A pair of George II, five-light chandeliers, 3ft
6in (1.07m) high, one with extensive replacements, made €22,000
(£18,330). The other, a single George III example, 3ft 8in high by
2ft 4in wide (1.12m x 71cm), tripled hopes at €30,000 (£25,000)
despite restoration and replacements.
Probably the most decorative lighting lot
was a pair of Louis XVIII, c.1815, bronze and ormolu candelabra
with classical females holding cornucopia, with three foliate cast
candle branches. The 2ft 7in (78cm) high candelabra were among the
pieces provenanced to the Lionel de Rothschild sale and also an
example of the auctioneer's discretion coming into play.
Estimated at €10,000-15,000, they sold at
Giltwood mirrors made a major
contribution to the Christie's event, where one George II
overmantel example sold at £260,000, but there were plenty more
left at Mount Congreve to reflect market demand. A c.1760 example,
with a divided arched rectangular mirror plate and mirrored borders
in a 6ft 6in high, 3ft wide (1.98m x 92cm) frame carved with
rockwork, C-scrolls, foliage and flowerheads, doubled the lower
estimate, selling at €32,000 (£26,670).
Bringing a mid-estimate €17,000 (£14,170)
was an Irish, mid-18th century mirror, 4ft 10in high by 2ft 8in
wide (1.47m x 82cm), with later shaped rectangular plate and
rockwork carved surround featuring ho-ho birds and fruit and floral
A real surprise was the success of a 5ft 7in
by 4ft 6in (1.74 x 1.37m) Regency giltwood and painted overmantel
mirror, with inverted breakfront cornice above a frieze of putti
pulling a chariot between flower-entwined column pilaster angles.
Estimated at €1500-2500, it made €13,000 (£10,830).
Regarding Irish brass-bound mahogany
peat buckets, it was interesting to see how examples fared on their
At Mealy's, auctioneer George Gerard Mealy
said: "They are still very strong sellers. Almost every house we
clear has at least one pair and they rarely go for less than €1000,
even if they are more modern reproductions. Georgian period
examples can often fetch between €3000-5000 for relatively plain
examples of small proportions, while the exceptionally large pairs
with documented provenance have been known to sell for six-figure
No such luck at the Mount Congreve sale, but
Mr Mealy's remarks were born out when a pair of 17½in (35cm) tall
20th century buckets took an above-estimate €2800 (£2330) and a
pair of of 12in (30cm) high George III examples also went above
hopes at €6200 (£5170).
Chinese Works of Art
Chinese porcelain and works of art
made a major contribution to the success of the Mount Congreve
sale. All 73 lots got away - many in the predicted three-figure
range, but with enough high-fliers to add €315,000 (£262,500) to
the sale total. Without labouring the point, Mealy's were happy to
see most of the items going to China via European agents, easing
the prospect of headaches some auctioneers have had in the past
The cataloguers could take credit in the way
many of the top-sellers were identified as mark and period pieces
but, as always, there were some real surprises.
Topping the section was a Wanli (1573-1620)
blue and white meiping decorated with scrolling lotus between
clouds and arcaded pattern bands. There was a faint hairline crack
to the shoulder and it had been fitted for electricity, but the
18½in (47cm) vase estimated at €8000-12,000 took €50,000
Provenanced to the Viscountess Harcourt
London sale of 1943 was a 4ft 6in (1.37cm) tall, Yongxheng baluster
and octagonal-section famille rose alcove vase and domed cover with
a seated Buddhistic lion finial which took a mid-estimate €26,000
A set of three Kangxi famille verte vases,
with mid-18th century ormolu mounts to two, and later ormolu to the
third, just cleared the lower estimate. Standing 15in (38cm) high,
each hexafoil baluster-form vase was decorated with panels of red
flowers between pierced scroll handles with climbing foliage
flanking the hinged lids.
Estimated at €20,000-30,000, they sold at
€20,250 (£16,875). "There were two bidders slowly battling it out
over the phone and one was clearly under instructions to stop at
€20,000," said Mr Mealy.
A few of the 18th century vases had been
converted to table lamps, which 50 years ago and more - when such
pieces were very much cheaper in real terms - plainly wasn't the
act of vandalism it would be considered today.
How much the conversion cost in terms of value is difficult to
say, but certainly not as much as estimators thought it might be. A
17½in (44m) tall pair of Kangxi blue and white tapering rouleau
vases, painted with a continuous band of figures on ledges beside
mountains, now adapted for electricity and offered with white
fabric shades, were estimated at €5000-8000 but sold at €34,000
Also Kangxi and 17½in (44m) tall, a similarly adapted blue and
white baluster vase, painted with a continuous band of women,
children and herons, sold at €23,500 (£19,170) against a €2000-3000