Friday, February 05, 2021

1985 - "Ulster's Not For Sale"... but the original Great Seal of Northern Ireland was!

On 23 July 1985, at 10.30am, the very first Great Seal for Northern Ireland, from December 1924, was due to be auctioned at Christie's in London as one item in their Ancient, English and Foreign Coins sale, and it appeared in colour on the front cover of the catalogue.

The Christie's catalogue of the sale doesn't name the previous owner, but its lengthy historical description is entitled 'The Property of a Nobleman'. The description points out that it included 'a wreath of shamrocks, roses and thistles' and that it was 13.8cm in diameter and weighed 197ozs. The expected value was £4000 – £5000.

According to reports on the British Newspaper Archive, at the very last moment it was withdrawn from the auction and sold privately. The irony is that, that same year, 'Ulster's Not For Sale' was a familiar slogan around the time of the announcement of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, as per the picture below. However the Great Seal was indeed for sale.

The Great Seal for Northern Ireland had been designed by Neville Wilkinson, struck by the Royal Mint (who also produced one for the Government of the Irish Free State). Later newspaper accounts say that the obverse of the Great Seal was designed by George Kruger Gray and engraved by Cecil Thomas.

The Great Seal was revised a few times over the decades. The next edition was in July 1938, and in doing so the formal procedure of "the defacing of the old" was undertaken. In November 1938 impressions of the original and the new Great Seal were among items donated to the collection of Belfast Museum and Art Gallery. In 1953 it was again revised to depict the new Queen Elizabeth II, and the Northern Whig even printed a photograph on 6 November showing both parts of the new Great Seal beside "the special hammer used to deface the old Seal". 

Perhaps someone out there knows where the Great Seals are kept today.