Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Support NHPR's local journalism that brings clarity, context, and community!

Contents Of Ireland's 'Big House' Auctioned


We are following other stories around the world this morning, including this one from Ireland, where because of the eurozone crisis many people don't trust the banks anymore. They'd rather put their money, if they still have some, in art or antiques, and they had an opportunity to just that when an Irish aristocrat named Ambrose Congreve died last year at the age of 104. He left behind a mansion full of treasures, and the contents of his estate have gone up for auction. Here's NPR's Philip Reeves.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: People have come from far and wide. They're crammed into a big tent at Mount Congreve, a country estate with world-famous gardens, tucked amid the woods and rolling fields of southeast Ireland. A treasure trove is going under the hammer. There are lacquered screens and vases from Imperial China. Rare books, Georgian silver, vintage wines, chandeliers and gilt mirrors and enough antique furniture to fill a palace.

FONSIE MEALY: Everything is on offer. It's a complete clearance of the entire estate.

REEVES: That's auctioneer Fonsie Mealy of Mealy's Fine Art, who're conducting the auction in association with Christies. Ambrose Congreve, whose property they're selling, was a multi-millionaire, a friend of Winston Churchill and the Rothschilds. He's from a Protestant, Anglo-Irish aristocratic family that's been here for centuries. Unlike many, he stayed on after Ireland won independence from Britain.

Fonsie Mealy and his brother George - a fellow auctioneer - knew Congreve well.

F. MEALY: He was an amazing man. And an iconic figure in many ways. He was a great man to entertain. He was full of beans up to the end. A great character, he had a great sense of humor.

REEVES: Congreve also had a home in London, next to the Royal Family at St James Palace.

George Mealy says that's where Congreve did his art shopping.

GEORGE MEALY: He got most of it through London because he had a lot of spotters for items that he might be interested in.

REEVES: And he just liked collecting.

G. MEALY: Absolutely, he loved collecting. He loved nice things and he had unbelievable taste.


REEVES: As the auction approaches, calls start coming in from as far afield as China. Other buyers, around the world, will bid via the Internet.


REEVES: In the tent, there are agents from across Europe. George Mealy says the Irish are here too.

G. MEALY: Oh, a lot of Irish, yeah, and a lot of the wealthy Irish are being represented here as well today.

AUCTIONEER: Eleven thousand, 12,000. Twelve thousand is enough. Twelve thousand the bid. Twelve thousand the bid. Twelve thousand. At 12...

REEVES: The auction begins, and the money starts flying. Some items fetch far more than the listed price.

MIRIAM MCDONNELL: Obviously, there's some tapestries on the wall there facing us, and I think that's Chinese wallpaper.

REEVES: Outside, Miriam McDonnell and her two daughters are peeping through the windows of the Big House. Congreve gifted his house and his gardens to the Irish nation, but not the art and antiques. McDonnell regrets his collection is being broken up.

MCDONNELL: It just lacks foresight. And I think our generations afterwards will say why did they do it? How could they have done it?


REEVES: These are hard times in Ireland. Property prices have collapsed. Trust in banks and markets has withered away. Those who have money are looking for somewhere else to invest it - so they've come here.

EDDIE SCOTT: I still hold stocks in Irish companies and, but I would say if you put a split on my investments that around about 70 or 80 percent is in antiques.

REEVES: Eddie Scott collects silver. He says it's not easy, investing in antiques.

SCOTT: You have to be extremely careful. You have to do your own homework.


REEVES: A few feet away, a group of people's examining Lot Number 492. It's Congreve's grey Phantom Six 1969 Rolls Royce. Only a few hundred of these were made - mostly for heads of state.

Michael Hogan is hoping to buy this one.

MICHAEL HOGAN: I have always been prudent with my investments, and conservative in my approach towards them. So that's - it has given me the opportunity to pick up some bargains now.

REEVES: How many Rolls Royces do you have?

HOGAN: Now that's a tricky one. I hope my mother's not listening.


HOGAN: I presently have five.

REEVES: But you love these things.

HOGAN: Oh, they're an addiction.

AUCTIONEER: Twenty-three thousands, newcomers back. Twenty-three are back. Twenty four here in front. Twenty four...

REEVES: Hogan doesn't get the Roller. But it is staying in Ireland. A man from Dublin buys it, for $56,000 - proof that, even in these hard times, there are still some big spenders.

Philip Reeves, NPR News.


SINGERS: (Singing) Hey, big spender. Spend a little time with me.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.