The Irish Mail on Sunday
We shouldn’t always sell to highest bidder
JACKIE O’s name was synonymous with elegance and class but the disposal of her letters an Irish priest some 20 years after her death has descended into a grubby farce, the type of which would have made the refined First Lady’s perfectly coiffed hair stand on end. Barely three days after the letters were revealed in the Irish Times, the glee of the auctioneers had evaporated in a maelstrom of suspicion and fear.
Judge Peter Kelly granted a temporary injunction against the expert in rare books – who helped unearth the letters in All Hallows College – from publishing any of the letters or trying to negotiate their sale. It all boils down to an unseemly row about who is at the top of the queue when the spoils, which could run into millions, are split.
But apart from the cache of Kennedy letters, what other treasures were found behind the austere college walls of All Hallows?
According to reports, it was a medieval Book Of Hours (a devotional book) from around 1460 that led to the Kennedy discovery. Two staff members from All Hallows brought the book, which is believed to have belonged to Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy, to a valuation event in the Hibernian Club on St Stephen’s Green.
The sight of this very old book triggered an invitation to the college library where Owen Felix O’Neill, the expert in rare books who was at the centre of last week’s court case, subsequently spent some time researching.
It’s curious, though, that amid all the hype about Jackie Kennedy’s correspondence, the medieval manuscript has been all but forgotten. Nor, apart from mention of a Lavery painting, do we know if any other valuables were found.
Scholars, historians and art lovers know that in medieval times both the nobility and members of the Catholic merchant class had individualised prayer books specially made for them which they often carried around in purses attached to their waists. If the auctioneer’s hunch is correct that the All Hallows book was owned by the Duke of Burgundy, then it might be very valuable indeed.
Philip the Good had the most sumptuous court in Europe. He was the Medici of the Middle Ages and a leader in taste and fashions. If the quality of the artwork is good and there are many miniature paintings contained between the covers, then the All Hallows book could be priceless.
A few years ago, I visited an exhibition of Philip the Good’s son, Charles the Bold, in Bruges and it was a breathtaking insight into the luxury and wealth of the medieval court. The fabulous jewellery, tapestries and opulent furniture gave the lie to the idea that medieval times were unrelentingly spartan and austere.
The sale of anything from this court could potentially represent a nice payday for All Hallows, and, indeed, for the auctioneers, should they be Sothebys in London or Sheppards in Laois (who are looking after the Kennedy letters).
But while it’s acceptable that the musings of Jacqueline Kennedy should leave the country, particularly given her daughter Caroline’s alacrity in cashing in on her mother’s legacy, is it right that a rare book could go to the highest bidder? Or is there a case for it to be donated to the National Library to be enjoyed by all of us?
We are keen to safeguard our heritage but there have been oversights in recent times. We had the debacle over Lissadell House in Sligo and the huge legal bill to the State could have been avoided if the Government had just bought the pile when it was going for a song. Nor is it that long ago that Peter Barry felt obliged to purchase the love letters of Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan at auction and donate them to Cork Public Museum lest they went to a private collector.
In 1990, a Caravaggio masterpiece, The Taking Of Christ, was discovered quite by chance hanging on the walls of the Jesuit House on Leeson Street in Dublin. The art world had assumed the painting was lost but when the Jesuits were giving the house a makeover, they asked the National Gallery to take a look at the large, gloomy painting that for 60 years had hung over the dinner table. It was the real deal and worth many millions. But rather than cash in, the Jesuits gave it to the National Gallery. It turned out that it was given to a Jesuit by the wife of an RIC man. How many clergymen around the country received bequests like that from wealthy Catholics, who in many cases had no idea of the value of their possessions? Is that how a Book of Hours from a Burgundian court found its way into a library off Dublin’s Old Drumcondra Road? Did its earlier owner intend it to be enjoyed by the seminarians and scholars of All Hallows? If so, it would be a shame if it were to be sold off to solve cashflow problems.