Treasures: why a complete set of Irish pewter can sell for over €4,000

Collecting Irish measurements of pewter is like playing poker. A quality card is a good thing, but what you’re really looking for is a royal flush. That would be a series of seven closing bars of the Haystack by Austen & Son in Cork.

One such set sold for €500 at Victor Mee’s Decorative Interiors, Architectural and Pub Memorabilia Sale on August 9th. Someone got a bargain there. Complete sets of 19th century pewter rulers are incredibly rare and can sell for over €4,000.

“It’s not often you get a full set,” says Mee. “When they broke up, they separated forever and trying to get them back together would be like matching old candlesticks. I had never sold a complete set in pewter, although you often saw them in copper.”

Tin measures were of enormous importance in Irish culture. They were used in pubs to measure drinks, and their accuracy mattered to the innkeeper and drinker alike. Nobody likes a short beer.

The name “haystack” came from their distinctive shape – a cylindrical base with straight sides beneath a conical top, resembling the way hay was stacked on Irish farms until the invention of the baler.

Even those old enough to remember stacking hay on farms are unlikely to remember these distinctively shaped giant stacks, but they can sometimes be seen in 19th or early 20th century paintings.

The largest was the gallon (which contains eight pints). This made them shrink like Russian dolls: the half-gallon (four pints); the quart (two pints); the well-known beer; the half pint, the gill or noggin (quarter pint); and the half noggin.

Both the historic Noggin measure and the modern ‘Naggin’ spirit bottle (200ml) take their name from the traditional Irish noggin, a wooden vessel used for food and drink.

“You see a lot of single people, but the little ones alone don’t make a lot of money,” says Mee. “It would have been a good pub that had a full set.”

In April this year a set of five Irish pewter Haystack Rulers by Austen & Son were sold at Sheppard’s for €170. The set consisted of a quart, a pint, a half pint, a noggin and a half noggin.

“There is a lot of interest in Irish pewter, particularly among specialist collectors in the UK,” says Mee. “We recently sold a Cork made pewter communion jug to a British collector for €3,200.”

The Austens’ Haystack Measure was an extremely popular model, widely used throughout Ireland. Joseph Austen was first mentioned in 1791 as a tin founder in Cork. By 1809 he was in partnership with at least one son and his family continued the business after he died around 1830.

The actual capacity of the measures was standardized by the Imperial system of measurement introduced in 1826, although some of Austen’s early prototypes refer to pre-Imperial Irish capacity measures.

Austen & Sons continued the trade until 1846 when the business was taken over by the Gibbings family, who formed the Munster Iron Company in the 1850s but continued to produce Austen-branded pewter until about 1880.

The Munster Iron Company continued to promote pewter bespoke makers until shortly before the First World War.

Pewter is a popular collector’s item, but it is also commonly reproduced and counterfeited. Curiously, the production of counterfeit Irish pewter haystack gauges for the UK collectors’ market in London appears to have overlapped with continued production of the genuine item in Cork.

Because the original and the fake were made around the same time, it can be difficult to tell them apart. The fakes have been enhanced with faux repairs, chemical aging techniques and fake “Austen & Son, Cork” touch marks under the base.

More than 100 years later, they are very similar to the originals. One could argue that these early fakes are almost as interesting as the real thing, but they aren’t what they make out to be.

To muddy the waters even further, “genuine reproductions,” made for the American tourist market and intended not to cheat, have also been counterfeited to sell as “genuine antiques.”

These tend to be lighter than the originals, but unless you have one in each hand it’s easy to get caught. As in poker, you have to watch out for the bluff.

See and Treasures: why a complete set of Irish pewter can sell for over €4,000

Fry Electronics Team

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