Love letters of WB Yeats to be sold in €2.1m London auction

Art, manuscripts and heirlooms of Yeats family for sale after State grants export licence

The adult grandchildren of poet WB Yeats are set to receive a huge financial windfall when the “Yeats Family Collection” is sold at auction in London next month. Sotheby’s said hundreds of items, from “one of Ireland’s most important families of the last century” will go under the hammer in a sale expected to realise up to €2 million – and possibly much more.

The collection includes literary material, paintings, drawings and personal effects that belonged to the artist John Butler Yeats and his four children: the poet WB Yeats, artist Jack, embroidery designer Lily, and printing press pioneer Lolly.

The Government has granted export licences to allow the collection to be shipped to London after three cultural institutions – the National Library of Ireland, the National Gallery of Ireland and the National Museum of Ireland had been offered "first refusal". Some items were acquired for the State but the vast bulk of the collection is to be auctioned.

The highlight is a batch of 133 letters between WB Yeats and his life-long friend and first lover, the minor English writer Olivia Shakespear which, alone, has a top estimate of almost €400,000. It is described as "of the highest importance to literary history".


The writing desk owned by the poet, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, is also to be auctioned with a top estimate of nearly €40,000. Oil paintings by his brother Jack B Yeats include a major oil, The Runaway Horse valued at up to €280,000. Dozens of paintings and sketches by their father John Butler Yeats – some that had been on loan to the National Gallery of Ireland – are also to be sold.

Intimate collection

Charlie Minter, head of Irish art at Sotheby's, said: "This is an intimate, personal collection of many never-before-seen works that shed light on the fabled Yeats family, their influence and personal connections".

The collection had been inherited by WB Yeats's son – the late senator Michael Yeats, a Fianna Fáil politician, who died in 2007 – and was housed in his home in Coliemore Road, Dalkey, Co Dublin. The sale follows the death of his wife, the harpist Gráinne Yeats in 2013, and is part of the process of settling her estate. She was survived by three adult children who all live abroad. In a statement, released via Sotheby's, the Yeats family said they had "enjoyed these items for many years" but that now collectors "have the opportunity to acquire their own piece of Irish history". The family home, Cliff House, Coliemore Road, Dalkey, Co Dublin, was separately offered for private treaty sale by estate agents Sherry Fitzgerald in April 2017 with an asking price of €2.5 million.

Sotheby’s said it would bring some of the key items in the Yeats collection back to Ireland for three days of public viewing at the Royal Hibernian Academy, Ely Place in Dublin (September 14-16th) before they are returned to London for the auction on September 27th.

Michael Parsons

Michael Parsons

Michael Parsons is a contributor to The Irish Times writing about fine art and antiques