O’Reilly’s auction house celebrates 75 years in business

From its early days as a pawnbrokers, selling everything from prams to CIÉ’s lost property, O’Reilly’s has positioned itself as one of Dublin’s finest auction houses, specialising in jewellery and antiques

In its more than seven decades in business Dublin auction house O’Reilly’s has seen considerable change. Established in 1948 by John O’Reilly, who began as an apprentice at a Dublin pawnbroking office, and subsequently became president of the Irish Pawnbrokers Association, in its early days the company sold everything from household items to silver. It also sold off the lost and found section amassed by the transport group CIÉ.

“After the war pawnbroking laws were changed and it meant that unredeemed pledges had to be sold by public auction,” says Martin Bernon, who is now at the helm of the auction house, having joined the company in 2000.

He says that back then the company sold pledges from all over the country so staff had to be retrained on the workings of auctioneering. Under the Pawnbrokers Act of 1964, should the pawner fail to buy the item back or renew the four-month contract, the item must be sold by public auction, but any profit from the sale (over the sale price minus original money paid out) is given back to the pawner.

While the auction house now operates about 14 auctions a year, back in the early days it had as many as five to six sales a week – with some days having two auctions from its then home at Winetavern Street in Dublin 8.


Today there remains only three licensed pawnbrokers in Ireland, all of which are in Dublin: John Brereton on Capel Street, Kearns Pawnbrokers and Jewellers on Queens Street and Carthy’s Pawnbrokers on Marlborough Street. In the 1960s and 1970s these fringe banking institutions, which offered the oldest and most accessible form of credit, helped many who could not access credit from financial institutions. “There were no credit cards back then and many had no access to credit from banks. To raise funds people would give something like a good watch over to raise money,” says Bernon.

In those days everything from good suits to prams and bicycles were pawned, but today it’s mostly jewellery. O’Reilly’s even sold property for a time, but the company subsequently pulled out of real estate, opting instead to focus on fine art, jewellery, antiques and silver. Now based in Dublin’s antique quarter on Francis Street, Bernon has seen huge change since he joined the company 24 years ago.

“Back then we had no need for computers. We had so many staff, and most of them were so quick to add numbers – they’d have the figures totted in their heads before someone had entered them on a keyboard – so we still used ledgers.”

But the Covid-19 pandemic threw a spanner in the works, and the changes auctioneers were forced to make – some of which had never conducted online sales before – completely changed the nature of the business. “What has amazed me, though, is we used to be a Leinster auction house but now we are an international company and sell all over the world”.

As with many in the trade, Bernon misses the buzz of a full room. “Pre-Covid you’d have about 200-300 in the room, and there was great back-chatting and repartee, and now there’s only about half a dozen. But it gives us an international reach and wider audience – we’ve sold to Hong Kong, the US and New Zealand.”

Bernon says that it’s currently a buyers’ market, with the contents of now empty attics flooding the post-Covid market, coupled with high inflation, having an impact on sales. But, while “items of good quality affordable jewellery, up to €2,500, have struggled to find new homes, rare and exceptional pieces continue to find buyers as long as reserves are realistic”.

“The war in the Ukraine and general unrest around the globe has had an effect on the precious metals market, with gold rising to €1,900/oz, and silver at €23/oz. During uncertain times investors consider gold a safe haven and this underpins a lot of what we sell.”

Bernon also notes that platinum at €850/oz has dropped by 15 per cent, “owing partly due to weak production in the automotive industry with a move away from fossil fuels, and auto exhaust systems towards battery cars”.

He is cautious about 2024, but sees the way forward in good quality items and strong interest in brands like Rolex and Chanel. The company’s upcoming sale has a stunner of an eternity ring (€22,000-€25,000). With over seven carats, the full band of emerald-cut diamonds is sized m/n, important to note, as due to the full band of jewels it cannot be resized.

Other notable items include an early 20th century diamond double-clip brooch (€7,700-€8,000); a vintage French snake bangle (€6,000-€7,000); and a diamond line bracelet with over nine carats (€12,000-€14,000).


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Elizabeth Birdthistle

Elizabeth Birdthistle

Elizabeth Birdthistle, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about property, fine arts, antiques and collectables