The phrase “white elephant” describes something useless that is also hugely expensive and troublesome to keep. It comes from Siam (now Thailand), where white elephants were seen as sacred, and the canny kings had habit of gifting them to anyone who fell out of favour. In another context, when French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi had the idea of gifting a 46 metre sculpture to the people of the United States, it might have been seen in a similar light. Instead, today the Statue of Liberty is a beloved icon.
Bartholdi was a man who liked to think big, and internationally. He had already failed to persuade the Khedive of Egypt to go for something similar – an enormous lighthouse at the entrance to the Suez Canal, taking the form of an Egyptian woman peasant, holding a torch on high. Luckier in the US, Joseph Pulitzer got involved with fundraising, and the statue, which was built in France, arrived in the US to be officially dedicated in 1886.
Its engineer was one Gustave Eiffel, who was certainly the hottest thing in metalwork back then. His eponymous tower in Paris was simultaneously under construction, opening as the centrepiece of the 1889 World’s Fair. Many French were revolted. Arty types, including Guy de Maupassant, signed an elegantly written but ultimately pointless petition, against the “useless and monstrous” Eiffel Tower, writing that from Notre Dame to the Arc de Triomphe, “all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream”. A white elephant indeed.
This tale of two edifices is full of nice coincidences. The French nickname for their tower is La Dame de Fer, “the Iron Lady”; while the iron, steel and copper lady engineered by Eiffel is actually almost 6,000km away, on the shores of New York. You’ll find versions of the pair far closer together at the Sheppard’s Architectural Ornaments and Garden Sculpture Sale in Co Laois, taking place from June 28th to 29th.
Thick with the usual urns, kerbs, benches, cherubs and stone toadstools (also known as staddle stones), two items stand out – and up. In a sale that auctioneer Philip Sheppard describes as “creaking with awesome goodies”, the replicas of the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty would certainly add a certain something – though I’m not sure quite what – to your garden.
Considerably scaled down, Lot 710, The Statue of Liberty, comes in at just over two metres, although depending on the size of your outdoor space, it could still be a little white elephant-esque. Estimated at €5,000-€8,000, it was originally created for a restaurant chain in the UK in the latter half of the last century, according to Sheppard. In a nice reversal from the original, it was made in the US and shipped to Europe. There’s a spot aloft the torch pedestal to put a candle, and you could perhaps imagine her presiding over an
epic barbecue or two come the fourth of July.
At nine metres, Lot 34, the Eiffel Tower was made in Ireland. Sheppard says it was made as the backdrop for a retail promotion, but the current vendor purchased it to use as a rose arbour. Its lattice-like structure is, in fairness, a lot simpler than the original, but the thought of it crept-over by clematis or ivy is rather endearing in a tempus fugit, decline-and-fall kind of a way. Estimated at €2,500-€3,500, it is considerably cheaper than acquiring one of the pieces of the original that occasionally turn up at auction. In December 2020, a fourteen-step section of the celebrated tower’s spiral staircase sold for almost €275,000 in Paris at the Artcurial auction house, just under 10 times its estimate of €30,000-€40,000.
The staircase section was one of a number removed from the tower in 1980, as part of a safety initiative. Four pieces were presented to French museums, including the Orsay, and the Museum of Iron. Twenty were auctioned off. In 2016, another section sold for even more, at €523,000, again with Artcurial.
The Sheppard’s lots, more than 700 of them, are online, and will be physically on view in the gorgeous Glantelwe Gardens, in Durrow, Co Laois, from June 25th to 27th.
The gardens were created by Sheppard’s in 2018 as a backdrop for such sales, and you can have a lovely day out, meandering around and imagining owning such items as Lot 435, The Vase of All Nations (€800-€1,200 for a pair). Made by George Boyd, and complete with decapitated angels (not Boyd’s fault), the urn is part of a pair depicting Queen Victoria receiving gifts from the peoples of various nations. You wonder how many of them might have been white elephants too.
The sale also includes a 19th-century horse-drawn carriage, minus the horses, once owned by Maureen O’Hara, of The Quiet Man fame. It previously sold at Sheppard’s in 2019 for €8,000, having been estimated at €4,000-€6,000. Back again, presumably after a nice trot round the block, it is again estimated at €4,000-€6,000.