The dictionary defines the word “masterwork” as: “work done with extraordinary skill . . . a supreme intellectual or artistic achievement”.
When Sheppard’s of Durrow announce a sale which has been given that title, expectations are understandably high and the catalogue for this week’s auction doesn’t disappoint.
It’s a small sale, 249 lots in total, but it contains a large proportion of objects which have not only been executed with “extraordinary skill”, but are also time travellers with fascinating stories to tell.
One such is George Mullins’s signed and dated Portrait of a Seated Beggar Man (Lot 47, €10,000–€15,000), which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1773. While researching the picture, Philip Sheppard discovered that the painter – who died at the age of 35 – had also carried out work on a ceiling at Cursk Castle in north Wales.
Always up for a spot of historical detective work he got in touch with the folks at the castle. They sent him images of the completed ceiling, which features a portrait of the god Zeus.
“And there he is,” he says. “The man from the portrait. The same sitter and the same pose. This isn’t really known – it’s not in the literature anywhere, so it’s very exciting. Mullins is a very important painter; four of his paintings are in the main reception rooms at Áras an Uachtaráin, and he was the teacher of the landscape painter Thomas Roberts.”
One of the largest pieces in the auction is a rare 18th-century tapestry, created in Paris in 1750 (Lot 110, €10,000-€15,000) – and one of the most beguiling is Thomas Sydney Cooper’s depiction of a flock of sheep sheltering from the summer heat in a thatched barn (Lot 51, €20,000-€30,000).
The sale features a number of important pieces of early Irish furniture.
A rare 18th-century marquetry chest from Luggala, Co Wicklow, is elaborately inlaid with ebony and mother-of-pearl birds, butterflies and urns supported by cherubs (Lot 12, €25,000-€35,000).
Another elegant survivor from the period is a George I walnut bachelor’s chest, circa 1730 (Lot 105, €3,000-€5,000), described as the “property of a titled gentleman”.
There are also a number of pieces with connections to the distinguished Dublin makers Williams and Gibton: a William IV-period mahogany library table (Lot 81, €2,500-€3,500); a Regency secretaire bookcase (Lot 82, €3,000-€5,000) and a stamped cellaret from 1820 (Lot 83, €1,500-€2,000).
A pair of mahogany side chairs with lattice-pierced backs, stuffover seats and chamfered legs are by Thomas Chippendale (Lot 16, €3,000-€5,000), while a Chinese-style Chippendale side table (Lot 17, €8,000-€12,000) bears a striking similarity to a table in the pattern book published by the legendary cabinetmaker in 1753.
Chinese items are a regular feature of Sheppard’s sales and have achieved some record-breaking prices in the past. This time around, all eyes will be on Lot 61, a green jade Qing dynasty seal with a guide price of €30,000-€50,000, and Lot 60 (€20,000-€30,000), an enamel-and-gold pocket watch from 1815.
Both items were bought at a contents sale at Castlewellan Castle, Co Down in 1964.
“The seal is quite large, so I think it had a ceremonial function,” says Philip Sheppard. “It’s generating interest in London, Beijing and New York: that said, it could do anything – or nothing – at auction. You never know.”
The pocket watch, he adds, is a really special item. From 1800 on, ownership of a fine European pocket watch became China’s ultimate status symbol. This one was made by the Englishman William Ilbery, who developed a range of high-quality watches for the Chinese market.
Trade in 19th-century China was tightly regulated, with foreigners corralled into a tiny area in the port of Canton, where they had to negotiate through local administrators. Given the immaculately-rendered enamel portrait on the case, this watch may well have been a gift to a tricky official.
The Masterworks catalogue features a number of notable busts and bronzes: Ernest Wynants’s art deco Female Head and Torso (Lot 9, €14,000-€18,000), a head of the poet Homer (Lot 11, €3,000-€5,000), an anxious-looking terracotta gladiator (Lot 53, €1,500-€2,500) and a pair of British prime ministers who had very different political attitudes to Ireland – the Arthur Balfour (Lot 13, €1,500-€2,500) and William Gladstone (Lot 14, €1,000-€1,500).
As well as objects of historical significance, however, this is a sale well supplied with the purely pleasurable.
A strong selection of jewellery is led by a sumptuous emerald and diamond necklace (Lot 167, €80,000-€120,000). There are books, many by and about Oscar Wilde, from the library of the late solicitor Gerard O’Keefe.
And among the high-quality wines and whiskeys from a private collection are, in their original wooden boxes, a Cristal Louis Roederer (Lot 147, €10,000-€12,000) and a Mouton Rothschild 2000 (Lot 248, €25,000-€35,000). Supreme intellectual and artistic achievements? Well, we reckon so.
Sheppard’s, The Square, Durrow, Co Laois. Masterworks, Thursday November 8th, 10.30am. For online catalogue, viewing times and bidding details see sheppards.ie