Historic silver with Westmeath link turns up at Christie's, New York
A collection of 330-year-old Irish silver that was bought at a Christie’s auction New York in April by the National Museum of Ireland is understood to have belonged to a Westmeath family.
The silver made $200,000 at auction – significantly more than the $60,000-$90,000 pre-auction estimate – and it is understood that the museum will ultimately put the six-piece dressing table set, made in 1685, on display.
The collection consists of an octagonal casket, a pin cushion, two boxes with covers, a clothes brush and a hairbrush, all decorated with in the Chinoiserie style, and containing the mark of silversmith John Segar.
Remarkably, the museum reveals, the acquisition complements two candlesticks and a mirror by John Segar acquired by the museum in 1962. The mirror and two candlesticks are decorated with Chinoiserie scenes, reeded borders, exotic birds and foliage, as are the objects acquired at Christie’s, and it is highly probable that all were originally part of the same set.
What’s as fascinating as the silver, however, is the story of its provenance, which has the confusing detail that it belonged to “an ‘old’ family in the Mullingar area... probably the Handcocks of Moydrum Castle”.
The silver had been deposited in the La Touche bank in Dublin, just prior to the 1798 Rebellion, for safekeeping.
Unfortunately, the receipt was mislaid, and there, at the La Touche bank, the silver remained for approximately 100 years until the bank was taken over by the Bank of Ireland, circa 1870, and the collection was rediscovered.
According to Christie’s, the silver was then removed from this country some time between 1920 and 1930 when the family left Mullingar “after their home was burnt during the Irish Civil War (1922-23)”. (Moydrum Castle was actually burnt in 1921).
It then wound up in the possession of the jewellery firm, Carrington and Co, Regent Street, London, circa 1930.
The set was acquired by Richard Cushing Paine Sr. (1893-1966) of Boston, Massachusetts, circa 1930, and it then passed into the possession of his son-in-law Dr John Constable (1927-2016), of Massachusetts.
It was via Dr Constable’s descendants that the collection wound up for sale with Christie’s, and the sale included a letter written around 1930, from Carrington and Co to Mr Cushing recounting the known provenance of the piece.
“It’s been sitting in a collection in Boston, and nobody knew it was there!” Jill Waddell, senior specialist in silver at Christie’s, New York, told The Irish Independent recently.
“When we went out to the house, the family had it all laid out with other pieces of Chinoiserie silver from the same time. We picked up one little box and noticed that it was Irish. Then the set grew under our eyes and we realised that we’d just walked in on the most wonderful treasure!”
Dressing table sets, popular during the 17th and 18th centuries, were often given by a husband to his wife as a marriage gift or to mark some special occasion such as the birth of a child.
While it is not known for whom this set was made, such lavish silver toilet sets could only have been afforded by the wealthiest families.
Raghnall Ó Floinn, director, National Museum of Ireland, said: “Irish Stuart silver is exceedingly rare and dressing table sets are rarer still. To be able to acquire and unite parts of the same set which have become separated over the centuries is exceptional and we are delighted to have had the opportunity to acquire these fine pieces to add to the collection.”
The newly-acquired pieces will be examined and conserved before being exhibited in the National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts and History, Collins Barracks alongside the mirror and candlesticks in the coming months.
The Handcock family, originally from Devon, came to Ireland as part of the Cromwellian invasion, and were at Moydrum from the late 1600s; The Right Honourable William Handcock, MP for Athlone, who became Baron Castlemaine in 1812, owned 11,500 acres of land in Westmeath.
He commissioned architect Richard Morrison to extend and remodel the existing house at Moydrum, and, in 1814, Moydrum Castle was completed.
In July 1921, the IRA burned the house, having first given the wife of the 5th Baron Castlemaine the chance to gather some of the family’s valuables and get out to safety.
The Moydrum Castle ruins feature on the 1984 U2 album, ‘Unforgettable Fire’.