When Return of the Jedi, the last of the original trilogy of Star Wars movies, was released in Irish cinemas, Cavan native Dave Gernon was only three years old. It was 1983 and he was still too young to know how big an impact those movies would have on his life.
“I remember seeing them more on TV than in the cinema, but even though Return of the Jedi came out before my time, the toy lines continued to be sold here until around 1991. That was a godsend from a collector’s point of view, because the rarer stuff was released around then, and I was able to pick up pieces at the time that you couldn’t get now,” he says.
Gernon is the proud owner of around 400 Star Wars figures, many of them unusual and hard to source. He says he’s close to completing a “full run” of original figures from the original movies. He has just two figures left to get.
“The second-last one will cost me around €400, but the very last one, a Mexican-made Boba Fett, is going to be pricey, at around €5,000. I’m not in a position to look for that right now,” he says.
Gernon has a particular focus — the term used in Star Wars collecting for a specialisation — on the bounty hunter Boba Fett. He owns one of nearly every kind ever made, around 100 in all, of this character alone.
There is one notable exception though that he doesn’t expect to ever own.
“The holy grail of Star Wars collectables is a figure of Boba Fett that was never officially released. It has a rocket pack that fires a toy rocket, but when they tested the prototypes, they decided it was too dangerous for a kid’s toy and scrapped it.”
Produced in 1979, fewer than 100 of these prototypes were made, and today it’s thought only a few dozen remain. When a mint-condition one was offered on eBay in 2020, the asking price was $225,000 (€204,431).
“Nobody is going to find one of those in their attic in Ireland, but there are an awful lot of other figures out there that are worth a lot of money to the right people. Collecting has become very competitive, with lots of people looking for every single version of a particular character. It’s become very specific,” says Gernon.
Collecting Star Wars memorabilia is a hugely popular pastime, and lots of different kinds of people are involved.
“It goes across every demographic. There are kids, teenagers and adults into it — men and women from all walks of life. It involves every type of person,” he adds.
Gernon understands that while some people won’t get the appeal of adults collecting children’s toys, for him it works on a number of levels.
He loves Star Wars and has a nostalgic attachment to the movies, but also toy figures generally appreciate in value and can actually represent a good investment.
“Before the pandemic, I saw some standard figures go for €20 or so, and the same ones are now being offered at €80,” he says.
“The rarest figure I own is an Argentinian Stormtrooper produced by the Top Toys company. That’s the one that would make other collectors jealous, and it’s probably worth around €800 on its own.
“The price of this stuff is always going up. You could be investing in paintings or crypto or random shares, but that’s not of interest to me. Instead, I’ve become an expert on something that brings me a lot of pleasure. What’s not to like?”
‘Shane MacGowan gave me a drawing he did of the Virgin Mary with a guardian angel armed with a Kalashnikov rifle’
Rosita Sweetman, Dublin – ‘Virgin Mary’ art
When it comes to collecting unusual items, Rosita Sweetman’s extensive collection of art and iconography connected to the Virgin Mary is right up there.
Even after donating 200 statues to the Little Museum of Dublin, she still has more than 500 paintings, photographs and images of the Virgin Mary in her home.
All of which begs the question, why? Why would someone who says they’re not religious dedicate their time to collecting religious iconography?
“The collection started off very innocently. I was organising an exhibition in Grogan’s Pub in Dublin to raise money for a legal case and I had a photograph of Shane MacGowan and Victoria Mary Clarke that I thought I’d display, so I went around to their apartment to get Shane to sign it,” says Sweetman.
“We got on very well and, when I was leaving, he asked Victoria to give me a drawing he’d done of the Virgin Mary on a floor tile, painted in bright colours with a guardian angel in the background armed with a Kalashnikov rifle. It was really striking.”
She brought it home, studied it, and realised that the image of the mother and child was actually a universal image. The more she thought about it, the more Sweetman realised that no one religion really owned the idea of maternal love, and, if anything, the Catholic Church had a history of suppressing the importance of Mary and women in society in general.
“The image of the Virgin Mary tended to depict her as a passive figure with downcast eyes, dressed in pastel colours and totally de-sexualised. This was a far cry from the strong and powerful female deities worshipped down the ages, and the women I knew in my own life,” she says.
“But I was very interested in the universality of the mother figure, so I got the idea to start collecting statues and images of the Virgin Mary because there are a lot of them in Ireland.
“It’s a universal image and is found all around the world, from sincere religious iconography through to blasphemous cartoons and even edgy street art.”
Sweetman’s favourite piece in the collection is a painting from Australia, an Aboriginal depiction of Mary, but adapted to that culture.
“It’s an absolutely beautiful image of a Mary with her head uncovered, sitting on the ground. She’s situated on the ground because she’s depicting the idea of Mother Earth, and it’s the opposite of the idea of putting her up on a pedestal,” Sweetman explains.
She first realised her collection had piqued the interest of other people when her children brought some of her images to the Electric Picnic festival and constructed a Mary “wishing tree” — a sort of take on the traditional Irish wishing tree, where people tie rags with prayers to a branch of a tree.
Sweetman said the Mary wishing tree was “mobbed with people. My kids were worried people would think they were religious nuts, but actually people totally got what they were doing.”
Back in September 2020, Sweetman held an exhibition for Culture Night at Dublin’s Copper House Gallery, including statues and imagery.
The exhibition was thronged, but Sweetman ended up on RTÉ’s Liveline programme discussing the issue of blasphemy. Not everyone was happy to see the image of the Virgin Mary repurposed for a new age.
“I was brought up a Catholic but don’t describe myself that way anymore. I’m a feminist and I love the image of the Virgin Mary and am interested in reclaiming her and the idea she represents as something strong and positive,” she says. “It’s not really got anything to do with Catholicism in my mind, at least not directly.”
‘I’ve got a few pairs by Virgil Abloh. They’re all worth four-figure sums now’
Dave Humphreys, Dublin – Trainers
For most of us, trainers are a utilitarian thing — comfortable, casual shoes for wearing while playing sports, running or just going for a walk. But for motoring journalist Dave Humphreys, over the years, they’ve become something more.
He is a trainer collector, or “sneakerhead”, and has a collection of around 100 pairs, although he says he doesn’t know exactly how many he owns.
“I’ve always just really liked trainers. Collecting them started as a hobby and now I think it’s probably become a vice,” he says. “Like everyone else, I always had trainers or runners as a kid, but every now and again you might get a ‘good’ pair, and that was a bit of a flex among your friends. I think that was the first time I ever thought of them as desirable things.
“Even as a kid, if I had a white pair and they got a mark on them, I’d be going mad trying to clean them with Jif. So it’s always been in me a bit, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more into the design aspect of them. It’s not necessarily about having the trendiest ones or the rarest ones. It’s the ones I really like the look of.”
Collecting trainers is actually a pretty common pastime. Sneakerheads drive a thriving industry based around rare and collectable shoes. It’s not unusual for people to pay thousands of euro for limited-edition trainers, and even millions for those belonging to notable celebrities such as Michael Jordan.
“I keep an eye on what’s new and upcoming but actually I don’t like a lot of what’s coming out. Lots of collectors buy shoes purely to have them or to sell on and they don’t care — if it’s new, they’ll buy a pair — but I’m only interested in buying trainers I really like,” says Humphreys.
“I do wear them, but I have some pairs that will stay in their boxes, and even with those I wear, I tend to check the weather forecast before going out.”
The market for trainers is very busy and it’s easy to sell on trainers, and some even appreciate in value. Most of his collection is made up of Nike runners, but he owns other brands, too.
“I would typically spend between €130 and maybe €200 on a pair, but I do have some pairs that I paid €600 for. That said, they’re already worth multiples of that. I’d say 90pc of my collection is made up of Nike shoes, and not for any particular reason. I just like the fit and sizing,” he says.
“I have a pair of Nike HyperAdapt trainers that are self-lacing. They’re basically a better looking version of the space Nikes that Michael J Fox wore in Back to the Future. You put your foot in and push down with your heel and the laces tighten.”
Another high-priced pair are designed by Virgil Abloh, a designer who recently died. His collaboration of 10 different pairs of trainers with Nike, called The Ten, is highly sought after.
“I’ve got a few of those but they’re now worth so much money that I can’t justify completing the collection. They’re all worth four-figure sums now.”
‘I don’t pick up maggoty heads from the side of the road’
Eoin Coyle, Galway – Animal skulls
When people walk past Eoin Coyle’s house in Galway, they’ve no trouble spotting which one is his. The giveaway is the skulls in the window. Lots of skulls.
“Where I live, there’s a lot of footfall, and lots of people pass by, so I like to leave a little exhibition for them to see,” he says. “Everybody stops to look, both children and adults, students and the elderly — they all stop, and I can see them wondering what they are. There’s something absolutely fascinating about seeing a well-preserved skull. You get a sense of seeing beneath the surface of life, and what lies hidden underneath.”
Coyle has around 25 skulls, some of which he uses for his window display. They range in size from tiny bird skulls right up to dolphin and porpoise skulls, complete with hundreds of tiny needle teeth.
He sources and prepares them himself, and it’s a hobby he’s had for many years.
“I do a lot of hillwalking and beachcombing, and that’s a big part of my life. More often than not, you’ll find something when you’re out on a big walk. I find all kinds of anatomy fascinating, and I’m interested in what nature does to us over time,” he says.
“As kids, my brothers always collected skulls they’d find when we were on holiday in Connemara, mostly rabbit and sheep skulls, and I think I picked up the fascination from them. Now people know I’m into this kind of thing, so they tend to bring me skulls.”
The smallest skulls in his collection are from wrens, while the largest are either those of dolphins or wild goats.
“There are big herds of goats around the Burren, so they’re not hard to find, but dolphin skulls are the most amazing. They’re so alien-like, and they have extra chambers in their heads to help them perceive sound underwater, like echo chambers, or pickups on a guitar,” he says.
“Most skulls look at least a bit like our own, but dolphins just look like they’re from another world. Likewise, the skulls of goats are just monumental, with their enormous horns. They’re very impressive, big, gnarly, spiralling horns. There’s something Gothic and primal about them.”
Coyle says that friends and family aren’t put off by the skull displays in his house. They find them interesting and not at all as macabre as you might think.
“As long as you clean them properly and they’re in good condition, they’re great things to have around. When they’re prepared properly, they’re actually lovely things to handle. The bone is like ivory,” he says.
“I don’t pick up maggoty heads from the side of the road. I generally let nature take most of its course and they clean themselves out.”
The trick to getting them ready for display is to boil the skulls and then scrape off any remaining tissue with scrubbers. Coyle then puts them in a diluted solution of peroxide before scrubbing them again and then leaving them in the sun for a few days.
“Everybody has a fascination with skulls. I guess some more delicate people might find the reminder of death to be upsetting, but generally people are fine with it,” he says. “That doesn’t happen too often. I even have vegan friends who appreciate the collection and understand that it’s part of life.”
‘Whenever my parents went overseas, they’d bring me back a doll from that country’
Kathleen Ryan, Tipperary – Peggy Nisbet dolls
Many young girls start a collection of dolls to play with, but not many take it as far as Kathleen Ryan from Tipperary. Her passion for a particular kind of doll started when she was just 10 — but 50 years later, it’s still going.
“I was born in Africa and my family travelled a lot — particularly to Ireland, because my dad was Irish,” says Ryan.
“My very first Peggy Nisbet doll was a Greek one, a doll dressed in Greek national dress, and I loved it.
“After that, whenever my parents went overseas without us, they’d bring me back a doll from that country. But these weren’t toy dolls. They were a particular kind of collectable doll that is becoming rare but, at one point, were found all over the world.”
The type of doll that Ryan is passionate about is known as a Peggy Nisbet doll, named after its British creator. In the 1950s, Nisbet started making collectable ‘character dolls’ depicting famous people, such as historical figures or people in international dress.
Her big break came when she got permission to make a doll that commemorated the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. They were wildly successful and could be found all over the world.
“I have about 500 dolls in total and around 250 of them are international dolls, including a few from countries that don’t exist anymore, such as Rhodesia. I still collect them today — one arrived this morning from eBay,” she says.
“I love history, and these character dolls really appeal to me, but I also love travelling, and they’re great souvenirs of countries I’ve been to.
“They’re getting harder to get, and you just don’t see them anymore. I was in India and Nepal in 2018 in the Punjab region and I bought six or seven there, but more recently, I get them online.”
Ryan’s collection is now quite large and she would like to convert a large outbuilding on her farm into a museum to house her dolls.
“At the moment, they’re boxed up, but in the past, I’ve displayed them. Now I’d like other people to be able to see them, too. I’m waiting to convert part of the old farm I live on into a place to display them. I plan to make the old milking parlour into a museum,” she says.
Ryan doesn’t know anyone else personally who collects Peggy Nisbet dolls but there is a competitive community online dedicated to the toys. When a rare one comes up on eBay, it’s not unusual for a bidding frenzy to erupt.
“The other day, I got a Cromwell doll, and I’ve only ever seen one of him before, so that was a big find for me. There was a massive bid for it, but I got him. Similarly, I recently lost out on a doll of John Knox, a historical character associated with Mary Queen of Scots. He went for $400 (€363), so people will pay a lot,” she says. “Right now, the one I’m really looking for is a doll of Mozart. I’ve only ever seen one once and they’re very rare.
“It’s brought me a lot of joy, and it’s taken a lot of time to build up.”
‘People frown on these things today but I like old stuff.. so it’s not doing any harm’
Walter Phelan, Laois – Taxidermy
In 1982, Walter Phelan was walking home from school when he bought a copy of a magazine called Rod and Gun and first learned about the existence of taxidermy. A keen fisherman, he was interested in the idea of mounting fishing trophies and also in researching the history of fishing in Ireland but, at the time, there was nowhere to do that.
Some 15 years later, an opportunity came up to help run a fishing museum and Phelan jumped at the chance.
The museum contained a room dedicated to taxidermy and he found himself more and more drawn to this obscure artform.
“The stuff I like best is Irish taxidermy that has been mounted in Ireland,” he says. Right now, I have about 300 specimens, from animal horns to bird mounts and fish mounts. The trick to collecting is to know where to look.
“That mostly means antique auctions, auction houses, car boot sales, advertisements online and, eventually, people get to know you’re interested and they come to you.
“If it’s done well and looked after, a specimen can last a long time. I have one case of birds that came out of Dover House in Castlerea and it dates from 1856. Taxidermy can last forever in the right conditions.”
The practice of preserving and mounting animals for display has a unique history, and dates back to the ancient Egyptians at least. However, it’s come in and out of fashion over the centuries, and most older examples found in Ireland today date from the British occupation.
In the 19th century, Queen Victoria was also responsible for a resurgence of interest when hunting trophies from Balmoral in Scotland were put on display.
“The thinking was that, if it was good enough for the queen, it was good enough for everyone else. It became common for the wealthy to have the heads or horns of trophies mounted as evidence of their successful hunts,” says Phelan.
At other times, hunting dogs were mounted and some of these are amongst the most valuable items in Phelan’s collection.
“Taxidermy is valued based on the scarcity of the animal and who it was mounted by. It was normal to sign work or attach a plate, so you can trace who did it. For example, from about 1880 to 1910, if you had a good hunting dog, you got it mounted,” he says. “I have a native Irish red and white setter mounted by James Hutchings & Sons from Aberystwyth in Wales. That dates from about 1880 and I think that’s worth around €2,500.”
Not everyone would want to have a collection of stuffed animals around the place. Indeed, Phelan says his partner is not keen on his pastime, but she puts up with it. “On a good day, I can get her to help me clean and dust them,” he says.
“A lot of people frown on these things today but most of my collection is Victorian and Edwardian mounts. I like old stuff and unusual stuff made by the masters, so it’s not doing any harm. For example, I have a Himalayan pheasant, and I’ve had Americans offer big money for feathers from it to tie salmon flies. That exact kind of bird is extinct today, and it has mythical status for fly fishermen.”
‘For me, it’s all about restoration. I don’t have much interest in anything new’
Vaughan Mason, Dublin – Vintage American axes
A fireman by trade, Vaughan Mason’s interest in axes started young. As a child, he was given a particular axe by his father, who had, in turn, been given it by an Irish forestry crew. It was a 7lb blade, specifically made to chop down oak trees.
A love affair with hardened steel was born, and today he has a collection of between 40 and 50 axes.
“I always loved my dad’s axe. It’s the biggest one I have in my collection still and it’s a hefty thing at 7lbs. Using it is like going to the gym – you get a workout,” he says.
For Mason, when it comes to adding to his collection, not just any axe will do. The ideal candidate has to be American, vintage and ideally in need of some tender loving care.
“For me, it’s all about restoration. I don’t have much interest in anything new. In particular, my thing is that I love axes from what’s termed the golden age of axe production in the US – the 19th and 20th centuries.
“Axes from that period and earlier are iconic. They use great steel, they tend to be stamped, and they have a sense of history to them. I love putting new handles on them and bringing them back to life. Some are over 100 years old.”
Mason’s favourite out of those he owns are made by Sager on the west coast of America.
“They’re not particularly rare but Sager used to stamp the year they were made into the axe head, so I have axes with 1926 and 1941 stamped into them,” he says.
The reason US axes have more appeal than those made in Europe is that widespread axe use in the US is more recent. While the ancient “old growth” forests of Europe were cleared a long time ago, in the US, old forests still exist, and axes were the main tools used to cut them down up until the chainsaw became widely available in the 1960s.
“You can also go back to when the US was colonised and the pioneers swept west across the country, felling trees as they went to develop farmland and build homesteads. That was all done by hand,” says Mason.
“The oak forests of Ireland are gone much longer, mostly cut down by the British and used to build ships. So it’s extremely rare to find old axes here – there just aren’t that many of them. In the US, there were thousands of axe manufacturers, and some of them operated into the 20th century, so it’s a lot easier to find them.”
The oldest axe in Vaughan’s collection is from 1917 – a hatchet used in World War One by soldiers building trenches – and he has a second tool dating from 1944 that might have gone over on the D-Day landings but “it’s hard to prove that kind of thing”.
“The Americans go nuts for vintage axes. For example, a pristine Black Raven axe could go for $5,000 (€4,538) or $6,000 (€5,446) easily. They’re the most valuable models,” he says.
For Mason, part of the appeal of his axe collection is that they’re robust tools designed to be used, not kept in a glass case.
“I use them all the time to cut wood and I’m also part of an axe-throwing club that meets regularly in Wicklow and they get an outing there.”
For anyone interested in getting involved, eBay is the place to start, he says, adding that there are some tricks of the trade it helps to know.
“It’s possible to pick up gorgeous old axe heads online for relatively little, and then you can make and fit your own handles. A pro tip is that, if you buy them with the handles on, the shipping is extortionate, so go for the heads first, particularly at the beginning.”
https://www.independent.ie/life/meet-the-collectors-shane-macgowan-gave-me-a-drawing-he-did-of-the-virgin-mary-with-a-guardian-angel-armed-with-a-kalashnikov-rifle-41503396.html Meet the collectors: ‘Shane MacGowan gave me a drawing he did of the Virgin Mary with a guardian angel armed with a Kalashnikov rifle’