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The Yeats Collection sale is only the latest sign of Ireland’s broken heritage export system

25 September 2017

On Monday The Irish Times published a letter signed by an impressive number of academics and authors decrying an auction due to take place at Sotheby’s in London on Wednesday. Featuring more than 200 lots and expected to realise almost £2 million, the sale comprises items formerly in the ownership of the late Michael Yeats, only son of W.B. Yeats and nephew of painter Jack B. Yeats. It includes many remarkable objects, ranging from W.B. Yeats’s writing desk to Jack Yeats’s collapsible silk top hat, along with texts, drawings and paintings by diverse members of this remarkable family. Among the fascinating lots is a collection of 133 letters written by W.B. Yeats to his first lover and life-long friend Olivia Shakespear. This alone carries a pre-sale estimate of £250,000–£350,000.

But it is foolish to pick out individual pieces for special mention: what matters is the collective archive, serving as a rare record of the Yeats family over several generations. Most likely after Wednesday this will be broken up and dispersed, so that future scholars will have to travel to a number of cities around the globe to investigate what, until the death of Michael Yeats, was held in one place, his home on the outskirts of Dublin.

It appears that the collection in its entirety was offered to various institutions in Ireland – the National Library, the National Museum and so forth – but the opportunity to purchase the whole was declined. A handful of pieces from Michael Yeats’s estate have already been bought by the state. Last year, his heirs donated W.B. Yeats’s Nobel Prize medal, awarded in 1923 and now valued at €1.5 million. This qualified for tax relief at 80 per cent of its value. Meanwhile earlier this year the family sold a collection of Yeats manuscripts to the National Library for €500,000. But the rest has been placed on the open market. Hence the indignant letter in Monday’s Irish Times.

We have been here before, and many times. Two years ago there was widespread public outcry when the trustees of the Alfred Beit Foundation announced their intention to sell a number of paintings from Russborough, County Wicklow in order to create an endowment for the house. Although delayed for some time, in part due to protests, ultimately the sales went ahead. In that instance, as with the Yeats collection, the Irish state declined to intervene, even though it has the power to do so thanks to a piece of legislation called the Documents and Pictures (Regulation of Export) Act.

Dating back to 1945, this was, in theory at least, supplemented by the National Cultural Institutions Act of 1997. The idea behind the laws is that before any cultural item over a certain value can leave the country, the parties responsible have to seek permission from government-appointed authorities, usually one of the main national cultural institutions. However, despite the legislation being in place for more than 70 years, there is no known instance of an export licence ever being refused. Last week, in response to a parliamentary question, the minister responsible for arts and heritage Heather Humphreys advised that since 2013 her department had issued 121 export licences, the National Museum of Ireland had granted another 505 over the same period and the National Gallery of Ireland, 373.

These are dispiriting, but not surprising figures and indicate that the Irish state continues to display scant interest in the preservation of cultural patrimony. There exists, for example, no contingency source of revenue on which to draw when cases such as the Yeats sale arise, no national arts and heritage purchase fund, no portion of the highly profitable National Lottery set aside for heritage (as is the case in Britain). Instead, the same pleas of poverty and other more pressing demands on the exchequer are made time and again.

Nonetheless, it would be wrong to place all the blame for this sad state of affairs on successive Irish governments. Each time such sales occur there is an inevitable and identical furore in which the complainants seem unaware that the same circumstances have arisen before. In addition, other than writing letters of outrage or signing petitions, little practical is ever done to save items under threat of being lost. At the height of the Russborough paintings agitation, for example, the Irish Arts Review organised an online appeal for their retention that collected more than 5,000 names – and 10€. Without wishing to question the sincerity of objectors, blaming the philistine state is easy: coming up with a feasible means of saving the national heritage demands greater time and effort. What’s needed is a practical approach to this issue, one that engages with government and anticipates the likelihood of similar crises arising in the future, ideally through the establishment of an annually supplemented fund. Unfortunately until something along these lines is created, there are likely to be more indignant letters written to the Irish Times.

Update: 28 September 2017. Robert O’Byrne writes:

Several Irish institutions were provided with special funding by the State to purchase items from the Yeats family collection sold for almost £2 million on Wednesday 26 September by Sotheby’s in London. There had been widespread calls for the Irish government to purchase the entire collection of over 200 lots but this option was not considered. Accordingly, the institutions had to take their luck among the auction’s other bidders, pay the standard buyer’s premium of some 25 per cent on each item and incur exchange rate costs (the auction being conducted in sterling).

In several instances the amounts paid were considerably higher than the pre-sale estimates. A portrait of Emily Herbert by John Butler Yeats, for example, had been expected to make £15,000-£20,000 but in the end was bought by the Trustees of Muckross House, County Kerry, for £43,750. Similarly, the Office of Public Works paid £11,250 for W.B. Yeats’s chess set, estimated to fetch £2,500–£3,500. Both the National Library of Ireland and the National Gallery of Ireland also acquired items from the sale. One of the most significant lots, a substantial correspondence between W.B. Yeats and his first lover, Olivia Shakespear, did not sell on the day – the top bid of £200,000 falling below the low estimate of £250,000. So it is possible this material could yet return to Ireland.

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