The library and the museum selected the items for purchase themselves, and they were withdrawn from the auction in advance. The items acquired by the museum included a walnut table, a Burmese chest in which Yeats stored manuscripts, a series of Japanese masks, and a collection of objects that show the influence of occultism and spiritualism on Yeats’s work.
Credit Charles McQuillan/Getty Images for Sotheby’s
The announcement that the government would intervene was made after high-profile Irish literary, artistic and academic figures decried the sale as a great loss to the country’s cultural heritage.
Prof. Christopher Morash, vice provost of Trinity College Dublin, was one of many academics who urged the government to keep the collection in Ireland. He said in an email, “I was delighted to see that the Irish government acted promptly, and wisely in allowing the key cultural institutions to decide which items were most important to preserve in public ownership.”
A letter signed by Professor Morash along with other academics and Irish luminaries, including Marie Heaney, Seamus Heaney’s widow, and the poets Paul Muldoon and Michael Longley, called on the government to prevent the collection being sold to foreign buyers.
“Preserving such a collection for the future benefit of Ireland has to be within the power of the Government and the national institutions concerned,” the letter said. “Once the collection is broken up and sold, the chance will not come again.”
An editorial in The Irish Times before the auction said, “Far too much of Ireland’s literary heritage has made its way into the archives of well-endowed American universities and the collections of private individuals abroad.”
A statement from the department of culture said the government’s action was not a last-minute intervention and had been in the works for some time.
“Over the past nine months, I have been working with the National Library and the National Museum to ensure the purchase for the State of significant items, as identified by both institutions, which were due to be auctioned in London today,” Ms. Humphreys said in the statement.
She added that over the past two years the Irish state has acquired material from the Yeats family collection worth a total of approximately €4 million.
Adrian Paterson, lecturer in English literature at the National University of Ireland, Galway and another signatory to the letter to the department of culture, said that while the state’s intervention was welcome, it did not go far enough.
“This is not a victory for Ireland but at best a fighting retreat,” Dr. Paterson said in an interview. “It does not keep the collection together. The chance to acquire from the family home will never come again.”
The items came from Cliff House, the former home of W.B. Yeats’s son Michael, who died in 2007. The sale was made by W.B. Yeats’s three grandchildren who live abroad and who have donated items from their family’s estate to Irish cultural institutions in the past.
In February, the family sold correspondence between W.B. Yeats and the author James Joyce to Ireland’s National Library, and the Irish government provided €500,000 toward the sale. In 2016, however, the government was criticized for passing up the opportunity to purchase the surrender letter of Padraig Pearse, leader of the 1916 Easter Rising, when it went up for auction in Dublin.
“Ireland uses its remarkable pre-eminence in literature and art to sell itself around the world,” Dr. Paterson said. “It is a shame that this has not been matched by sufficient conviction of its worth at home.”