Mary Robinson’s Zimbabwean art and Maureen O’Hara’s religious medals: lots of surprises go under hammer

Luxurious items of clothing and jewellery owned by the late actress Maureen O’Hara, as well as the contents of former President Mary Robinson's country home in Co. Mayo will go under the hammer at a Sheppard’s auction next week. Video: Bryan O'Brien

Sheppard’s auction reveals very different tastes of two of Ireland’s best-known 20th-century women.

‘Folk art’ paintings from Zimbabwe are among the surprise lots in Sheppard’s auction of items owned by the former president of Ireland Mary Robinson and her husband, Nick, this week. The 200 lots consigned by the Robinsons from their former country estate – Massbrook in Co Mayo – include Lots 17, 19 and 21, described as ‘Zimbabwe School’ paintings, each estimated at €80-€120. Sheppard’s said the paintings are of a type sold to tourists by street traders in the southern African country. Mrs Robinson visited Zimbabwe on at least two occasions – as president of Ireland in 1994 on a state visit hosted by President Robert Mugabe and, more recently in 2012, on behalf of ‘The Elders’, the self-styled “independent group of global leaders working together for peace and human rights”.

The paintings – acrylic on board – are bright, colourful depictions of African scenes and are signed with the artists’ Christian names only. The most interesting, Lot 19, Village Life by Margret [name as spelled by the artist] is dated 1994 and still has the original price sticker – 199 Zimbabwean dollars. A handwritten-note by the artist is affixed to the back of the painting explaining that the image shows that “people in the village are happy looking to the big butterfly flying up the sky” while engaged in activities including fishing, cooking and pounding maize but a “snake is trying to eat the butterfly” and “a baboon is watching what is happening in the village”.

Portrait of Mary Robinson by artist Derek Hill is estimated at €3,000-€5000.

Portrait of Mary Robinson by artist Derek Hill is estimated at €3,000-€5000

Separately, pieces of African ‘tribal art’ are being sold by the Robinsons, including Lots 163 and 164 – hand-carved ebony wood sculptures – made by the Makonde tribe (who live mainly in Tanzania and Mozambique) – each estimated at €200-€300.

Other exotic lots include Lot 29, a prayer rug featuring a map of Afghanistan (€80-€120); Lot 31, a “Turkish Palace Carpet” (€400-€600); Lot 148, a Hawaiian turned Norfolk Pine fruit bowl (€80-€120); and, Lot 167, a Japanese black lacquered jewellery box (€80-€120).

From closer to home, the Robinsons are also selling their collection of Nicholas Mosse pottery – a staple of Irish middle-class kitchens – with numerous pieces on offer including Lot 68, a bowl with red tulip decoration (€30-€50) and Lot 83, three mugs (€40-€60). Lot 197 is not quite what one would expect in the home of Dublin 4 legal types – a 19th-century Irish print depicting hare-coursing (€80-€120).

Original art of a very different kind is on offer with two cartoons by Nick Robinson. Sheppard’s said that Mr Robinson – a lawyer, historian, author and expert on 18th-century caricature – had once been a cartoonist whose work had been published in The Irish Times. Lot 52, estimated at €400-€600, is the original pen-and-ink artwork (and a preparatory sketch) for a cartoon entitled Rolls Royce Oops – published in the paper in early 1971 when the British luxury car manufacturer went bankrupt. The image shows the famous car’s bonnet mascot the “Spirit of Ecstasy’ reacting with horror to the news. Lot 50, also estimated at €400-€600, is a pen-and-ink caricature by Nick Robinson of his wife Mary, whom he married in 1970, showing the future president wearing a mini-skirt about to deliver a speech on the subject of ‘Crowd Control and the Criminal Law’. It is signed and dated 1971 and captioned “Nick anticipates the 1971 Reid Lecture at TCD delivered by Professor Mary Robinson”. Before entering politics, Mrs Robinson was on the staff of the legal faculty at Trinity College, Dublin.

The Robinson Collection will go under the hammer on Tuesday, November 29th. The catalogue cover features Lot 222, Portrait of Mary Robinson by Derek Hill (the English, Donegal-based artist who died in 2000) estimated at €3,000-€5,000. A portrait of Nick Robinson by Hill is Lot 223 and has a similar estimate.

Photograph of Maureen O’Hara wearing her Christian Dior mink, which is up for auction estimated at €3,000-€5,000.
Photograph of Maureen O’Hara wearing her Christian Dior mink, which is up for auction estimated at €3,000-€5,000

Day two of the auction on Wednesday (November 29th) includes hundreds of items that belonged to the Irish Hollywood star, Maureen O’Hara, who features on the front cover of the separate catalogue. While her fabulous fur coats (especially Lot 885, her hooded Christian Dior mink estimated at €3,000-€5,000), designer dresses and lavish jewellery are already attracting interest from prospective bidders around the world, some of the little, inexpensive items are a reminder of O’Hara’s deep Catholic faith, which was a hallmark of her long life. Lot 923, is a silver medal inscribed “Catholic Association – Pilgrimage to Lourdes (estimated at a mere €30-€50); and Lot 986, a Mexican gold religious medal also featuring Our Lady (€300-€500). Last year, at a Bonhams auction in New York, a parchment blessing granted to Maureen O’Hara and her family in 1952 by Pope Pius XII sold for $1,625 – more than six times the top estimate.

Viewing of both the Robinson and Maureen O’Hara collections – and the other 1,000 lots in the Sheppard’s saleroom in DurrowCo Laois, take place from now until Monday evening. Catalogues and bidding details at sheppards.ie. – Irish Times