WB Yeats’s love letters fail to sell in London auction

Poet’s writing desk, chair and hairbrushes sold but low estimate not reached for top lot

A four-hour long auction of Yeats family art and heirlooms at Sotheby’s in London has realised £2 million (€2.2 million).

Among the top sellers was a writing desk used by the poet WB Yeats that sold for £187,500 (€214,000) - over six times the top estimate. The 18th century oak and mahogany desk was among 224 items of art, antiques and heirlooms being sold by the poet’s grandchildren.

The poet’s chair, sold as a separate lot, made £32,500 (over six times the top estimate), while a pair of his rosewood hairbrushes sold for £4,375.

The auction featured paintings, drawings and the personal effects from the artist John Butler Yeats and his four children: the poet WB, embroidery designer Lily, printing press pioneer Lolly, and artist Jack.


The highest price paid for a painting was £212,500 for ‘The Sunset Belongs to You’ a painting dated 1951 by Jack B Yeats.

However, the top lot - a batch of correspondence between the Nobel Prize-winning writer and his first lover, the English writer Olivia Shakespear - failed to sell despite attracting a bid of £200,000, below the low estimate of £250,000.

The letters, described by Sotheby’s as “of the highest importance to literary history”, had been expected to attract interest from US universities.

The highest valued art lot, an oil painting by Jack B Yeats titled ‘The Runaway Horse’, with a top estimate of £250,000, also failed to sell.

Sotheby’s said that 87 per cent of the lots had sold and 1,800 bidders from 16 countries had participated.

The collection came from Cliff House, Coliemore, Dalkey, Co Dublin - the former home of WB Yeats’ son Michael Yeats, the late Fianna Fáil senator and MEP, who died in 2007 and his wife Gráinne, who died in 2013.

The collection was sold by their adult children Caitríona, Siobhán and Pádraig who all live abroad.

Sotheby’s said it had acquired export licences to allow the collection to be shipped overseas and that the State’s cultural institutions (The National Library of Ireland, The National Museum of Ireland and The National Gallery of Ireland) “were made aware of the sale at the earliest opportunity, and were given the first right of refusal on the collection”.

Despite this, four State bodies were among the bidders at the auction which means they had to compete against other bidders, pay a buyer’s premium of approximately 25 per cent on each item and incur exchange rate costs as the sale was conducted in sterling. The National Library said it had spent €72,675 to buy paintings and drawings by John Butler Yeats.

The National Gallery of Ireland spent approximately €117,000 to buy 10 items including ‘Portrait of Elizabeth Corbet ‘Lolly’ Yeats’ by her father John Butler Yeats. A spokesperson said the National Gallery had not been given the right of first refusal ahead of the auction and had no power to prevent the export licences being issued.

The OPW (Office of Public Works) spent €19,000 buying three lots including WB Yeats’s ivory chess set which sold for €11,250 - three times the estimate.

The trustees of Muckross House in Killarney National Park, Co Kerry, together with the National Wildlife Service of the Department of Culture, jointly purchased Lot 19, a portrait of “Mrs Herbert of Muckross with a Maltese Terrier” an oil painting by John Butler Yeats which made £43,750.

Separately from the auction, The National Library of Ireland announced that, earlier this year, it had paid the Yeats family €725,000 for a collection of letters between WB Yeats and his wife. The National Museum of Ireland also announced that it had, earlier this year, bought “a hugely important group of artefacts relating to the life of WB Yeats” from the Yeats family for €170,000 that had prevented the items from being sent to auction.

Apart from selling items to the State, the Yeats family is also benefiting from tax relief in 2016-2017 of almost €2 million in return for “donating” other material to the National Library.