Mystical and practical: Art and antiques playing vital role in Emerald Isle’s economy

For all of Ireland’s magical and mystical characteristics, it is also a country whose people are rich in perseverance, loyalty and creativity. All of those traits are represented and reflected in Ireland’s antiques and collectibles, and in the modern-day antiques business of the Emerald Isle.

This combination of mystical and practical is obvious in a variety of antiques and supported by recent auction results from the U.S. and abroad. During its 20th Century British and Irish Art Auction held in November, Bonhams reported the sale of an oil painting by Paul Henry of two elderly women of Achill Island, Ireland, for $143,000.

In part, Henry was drawn to Achill Island in County Mayo to paint because of the locals’ culture and their challenging lives, author S.B. Kennedy explains in his book, “Paul Henry: Paintings, Drawings, and Illustrations.”

“Old Age Pensioners,” painted by Paul Henry in 1911, sold for $143,000 during Bonhams’ 20th Century British and Irish Art auction held in November 2012. (Photo courtesy Bonhams)

It was from Henry’s observations of the elderly women, who maintained their sense of self and style by sporting colorful petticoats as they braved the elements to obtain their monthly pension payments, that he created the recently sold “Old-Age Pensioners” painting.

The interest in traditional Irish antiques reaches far beyond the confines of the island country. Favorites include antique Irish furniture, often recognized for rich walnut and deep mahogany woods; Irish silver; Waterford crystal; Irish lace; and the always-evolving world of Belleek pottery.

Owning something crafted in and representative of Ireland and its people is part of the appeal, according to Chantal O’Sullivan, owner of O’Sullivan Antiques of Dublin.

“Good quality Irish antiques, high-end pieces, are selling,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s not unlike the 1930s, when tangible assets, like furniture, were important for investment value as well as enjoyment.”

O’Sullivan, who has spent more than 30 years in the antiques business, established O’Sullivan Antiques in 1990. Specializing in Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian period furniture, O’Sullivan was prompted to open a second gallery in New York in 1996 to keep up with U.S.-based collectors who showed growing interest in O’Sullivan’s offerings. In that time, she’s seen much and learned even more about people’s deep appreciation for Irish antiques and an overwhelming desire to collect beautiful things.

This mahogany side table, circa 1760, features a swag apron, with cabriole legs that end in hairy paw feet. It is currently on display and available for purchase at O’Sullivan Antiques in New York. (Photo courtesy O’Sullivan Antiques)

The widespread interest in Irish antiques is part of what led O’Sullivan Antiques to partner with The Curator’s Eye to connect with more collectors during its month-long exhibit of 18th-century Irish silver, which concluded in mid-November. The exhibit, held at O’Sullivan’s New York gallery, featured several pieces of Irish Georgian silver.

“In addition to furniture, one of the great glories of Irish art is its decorative art. Including silver, these objects tend to display a playfulness and exuberance differently from their British counterparts,” said Sarah Hollenbeck Valelly, founder and CEO of The Curator’s Eye. “There are major cities across the world with significant Irish heritage arising from the immigration initially sparked by the Great Famine of the 1840s; the Irish Georgian society has chapters in New York City, Chicago and Palm Beach.”

This growing appreciation and international interest in Irish antiques is not lost on many of those who call Ireland home — and who see multiple benefits of a healthy and globally connected antiques sector. As Ireland continues to fight its way back from a devastating recession that has plagued the country for the past three to four years, a strengthening export market for Ireland (with more than 50 percent of exporters reporting growth in 2012) holds promise.

“Conditions in international markets remain difficult, but (these) figures show that Irish exporters are performing extraordinarily well in a tough environment,” Richard Bruton, Ireland’s Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, said in an October 2012 article on Finfacts.

This article originally appeared in Antique Trader magazine

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To achieve the goal of growing the antiques market in Ireland and abroad, the Ireland Antique Dealers Association (IADA) is working to share the joy of antiques and collecting with Ireland’s youth and celebrating that interest through events like the Ireland Young Collectors competition. The IADA teamed up with the Irish Times to host the event, which called on youth to demonstrate a keen understanding of the history and details of a collection they owned.

“The top five (entrants) had gone to great lengths to gather items and seemed to have a great knowledge about their collection,” said Niall Mullen, of the IADA. “The winner had assembled an impressive array of Irish and international historical objects that a veteran collector would have been proud of. The fact that he was 11 made it all the more amazing.”

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