Should There Be a System for Tracking Ireland's Antiques When They Leave?

Portraits, landscapes and still lifes cover the walls of Fennelly Antiques. There’s highly polished furniture in every corner.

Across from the desk from where Martin Fennelly is sat on a quiet Thursday morning is a large, oval table with two brightly coloured ornamental vases sitting on top.

It’s a “flip-top” made of yew and arbutus wood, says Fennelly. The table was made in about 1870 in Killarney.

It works as, well, a table. But it’s meant as a show piece. It flips up so the top is on full display, and reaches almost to Fennelly’s full height. “You would find it difficult to find anyone who could do it today,” he says.

His antique shop’s lamps cast a golden glow. Classical music plays.

Fennelly picks out another, smaller “Killarney” piece, also a table, and unflips it. “Same story, rare item, beautiful scalloped side. About half the size of the first. This was meant to be shown,” he says.

These tables are some of the rarer Irish-made items in Fennelly’s shop. Right now, some manuscripts and artworks require export licences to be carried out of the country. But the process for furniture like this is less clear.

Fennelly thinks there should be a way to keep record of the rarer, albeit not always one-of-a-kind pieces that are important to Ireland’s cultural history.

A Rare Breed

There’s a reason that a lot of this type of furniture was manufactured in the late nineteenth century, says Fennelly.

There are a few versions of the story, says Fennelly. But as he remembers it, to commemorate Queen Victoria’s visit to Ireland in 1861, the earl of Kenmare spent much of his money doing up Muckross House in Killarney, and commissioning pieces of furniture for her.

The earl gave her a davenport – an ornamental writing desk – made locally of arbutus wood and yew.

“In the 1950s, the big estates were broken up, and a lot of [the furniture] was shipped to America and the UK,” says Esther Sexton, from her antique shop a few doors down.

“During the Celtic Tiger, Irish dealers were able to buy it back from the international market,” she says. She thinks there are some things that should stay.

When the English built their grand houses here, a lot of the furniture they placed in the properties came from England. “They didn’t need the Irish,” says Fennelly.

“The irony is today, that an Irish console table can achieve unbelievably high prices because so few were made, and the standard of craftsmanship available in Ireland at the time was fantastic,” he says.

They’re popular among Irish expats in the United States, Canada and Australia. “Pieces like this, it’s hard to number them, but there would be relatively few worldwide,” Fennelly says, waving an arm at the larger table.

He’s just sold the larger table to a buyer in Ireland, and he says they’re both delighted that it will stay in the country.

Shipping Away

“There is of course, nothing to stop me exporting it out of the country, if the person purchasing it was outside of Ireland,” says Fennelly. He doesn’t think the licences are well enough monitored.

Sometimes, antique dealers in Ireland would get a better price for exporting items like this overseas.

The National Gallery of Ireland and the National Museum of Ireland maintain “curatorial records” of exports, said a spokesperson for the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

Applications for licences for documents and manuscripts can be obtained from the National Library, with licences issued by the department. Paintings and drawings come under the National Gallery, and archaeological objects are looked after by the National Museum.

In 2017 the department issued 10 licences, the National Gallery issued 78, and the National Museum issued 104 licences. In 2018 the department issued 15, the National Gallery issued 41, and the National Museum issued 144, said the spokesperson.

Violations are a matter for customs officials and the Gardaí, and the department isn’t aware of any licence violations in the last two years, the spokesperson said.

On top of that licensing regime, the law, which stems from EU directives, says there has to be a register of cultural objects that, if exported would “constitute a serious loss to the heritage of Ireland”.

The register has 46 entries listed for export in 1997, all paintings in the National Gallery, and one item listed for export in 2016, the surrender letter written by Padraig Pearse after the 1916 Rising.

“Technically there is no mechanism for the Government to deny an export license for anything,” said Stuart Cole, director of Adam’s Auctioneers. “A delay of one year may only be enforced if the minister places the object on the register of national cultural heritage objects.”

An “expert review group” proposed a licensing system for furniture and other fine arts prior to the drafting of the last National Cultural Institutions Act, Cole said. “This proposal was not included,” he said.

Keeping a Record

There should be “some mechanism […] to deny export and retain objects and works of art for the nation. And yes this should apply to objects of furniture silver etc, which are of significant value as proposed by the expert group,” Cole said.

Fennelly proposes a lighter touch. At the “very high end of the market”, Fennelly says, there should be some kind of licence, if the pieces are specific or significant, especially to do with the foundation of the state.

“There would be more control over their destination. Even if it only means licencing them, and the government ends up knowing where they are,” he says.

There’s a difference, he says, between saying you can’t do it, and saying you can but there’s a record of where it is.

Ultimately, it means the piece becomes noted, and contributes to an encyclopaedia of relevant pieces worldwide. That’s good for the seller and the purchaser, says Fennelly.

“In ten years or twenty years time, wouldn’t it be great if the Irish govt knew where the pieces were, or at least could confirm that […], yes that did leave the country on such a date?”

“If it’s something cultural, there’s probably no harm in having some kind of record,” says Simon Johnston of Johnston Antiques, near the end of the street.

They sell mostly to private collectors, he says. Some don’t have any interest in the provenance. Others are really curious.

Ultimately though, it’s up to the individual buyer if they wanted an archival paper trail back to Ireland, says Johnston.

Cathy Scuffil, the council’s historian in residence for the South Central Area, says that “If you can imagine looking at an old portrait painting of some lady, or earl, in their house, and there’s a suite of furniture in the background, that’s part of the features of that house, it would be very interesting to know where those things go.”

There should be some kind of tracking, she says. “You’d have to have items above a certain value […] you don’t need to know where every teaspoon goes.”

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