Right, I’m going to have to say it. When it comes to thrilling vintage pickings, Irish boot sales generally don’t compare to the UK and US offerings in yard sales and flea markets.
Now, I’m not saying I don’t thunder through early-morning pitches, head bowed into the drizzle with a heart full of hope. A gallant band of professional and semi-professional sellers stud these venues offering genuinely interesting and fairly priced pieces, from vintage jewellery to ceramics and up-cycled furnishings.
However, they swim valiantly in a sea of tat, shovelled from the mouldy, rust speckled base level of house clearances and domestic de-clutters.
Secondhand clothes, broken bloke reliquaries, and brand new plastic gee-gaw are the order of the day. The tantalising possibility that keeps us all wandering with a fist full of chips, bum bags pregnant with €2 coins, is that somewhere out there is vulnerable human prey.
In our most greedy moments, we envision a hapless householder with no access to the internet or a television set on Sunday nights for Antiques Roadshow and other 101 visual primers.
We see him/her dopily shake off a 16th century pottery platter serving as a doorstop for 60 years in their auntie’s house, swatting it with a J-cloth and slinging it (lightly please, you twit) onto the back seat of the car. Priced at €3, it will be there in that boggy field in North Cork, waiting, speaking to us, and making us that fortune we so richly deserve.
We will of course beat them down to €2 — sure, there’s nothing personal here. Boiling this down to the truly likely, collectors committed to the boot sale circuit often recognise pieces, be it a HomeMaker plate from the 1950s, or a Lucite bangle made in the States, and seize it for a fraction of its retail price.
Ireland is a smaller, pastoral country and had a lesser showing of the middle class in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
The level of belongings that make up the best of boot sales is in shorter supply here than in the UK — which grew prosperous on the back of Industrialisation from the 1760s on.
Add to this the convenience and worldwide audience available to buy better pieces online, and it’s little wonder our sales are not rich harvests of affordable antique and vintage treasure.
We rely on things trickling down through time from a higher tier of society and casual spending, to the tarps and folding tables- mixed lots from auctions, gifts, grabs and goods collected up by someone with a good eye or sheer good luck.
These are the happy accidents boot sale adventurers dream of blinking from the bottom of a cardboard Tayto box.
Stories abound, and fuel the latent excitement stepping into any boot sale field. If you trip over to our UK neighbours, then a larger sale at dawn is a genuinely heart-pounding moment. These are acres prowled by collectors and antique dealers who have found village regulars and charity events to be rich grounds for the experienced roamer.
In 2008, a Dumfries couple found a glass vase in a heap of goods at a sale in the South of Scotland. It turned out to be Feuilles Fougères, a rare piece from 1927 by iconic maker Rene Lalique. It later sold for over €44,000 at auction.
In England in 2013, another booter was amazed to find a highly collectable Breitling watch for the princely sum of £25. A keen collector the buyer knew he stood to make a return of at least £30,000- quite a day out.
However, following extensive research it was found that the watch was the unique Top Time Breitling, worn by Sean Connery as 007 in Thunderball (1965). Tinkered up by Q in the story to sense radioactivity while chasing the villainous Largo, it sold at Christie’s for £103, 875 (around €141,000).
My favourite tale is a reminder that a boot sale is a great place to swiftly launder, rogue pieces, or to throw a polite fog over its provenance. In the summer of 2012 in West Virginia, The Potomac Company, a reputable auction house was amazed to be offered a painting by Pierre Auguste Renoir.
The seller described picking up the signed work three years earlier for $7 at a flea market. Having originally like the frame, she quickly tired of it, and it was stored, stuffed into a bin bag in the woman’s garage for the next three years.
The auctioneers recognised the painting as genuine and the FBI took an immediate and lively interest. It was soon recognised as a masterpiece by Renoir painted in 1879 for his mistress while having a picnic and stolen from the Boston Museum of Art in 1951 — On the Banks of the Seine.
Recently a poignant study of First World War, The Last General Absolution of the Munsters (Fusiliers) at Rue du Bois after Fortunino, was bought by an English couple at a yard sale in Lincolnshire for £25 (€34), and brought to Ireland.
It was signed by the chaplain pictured in the print, and put up for sale by Whytes auction house in Dublin last week with an estimate of €2-€3,000. The original painting showing the last blessing before a dreadful encounter at the Battle of Aubers Ridge on May 9 1915, is believed lost.
Many such prints of the painting were destroyed in Ireland over the decades in a struggle of divided loyalties. These are the magical encounters with the past, we all dream about.
We just want to have that almost metaphysical experience at a bargain price and a lip-licking return. Where’s my Renoir?
* For a full list of boot-sales all over Ireland, log onto www.Collectireland.com