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Traffic in Mockery

Adrian Paterson

Viewing an auction is like going to the bookies to watch the horses. The same seedy exhilaration as the burbling commentary mounts in climactic cadences; the same combination of heady compulsion and panic (online, to bid you don’t even have to raise a paddle ‑ all it takes is a click from a nervous trackpad finger); the same frustration at losses, missed chances, the promised salvation in races or bids to come. Afterwards, as the screen and excitement fades, there is a familiar sweat of emptiness, the same dizzying sense of being lost among the pieces of paper, pencils and numbered cards, the same dry-mouthed awareness of explanations to come, the reckoning of what you won, and what you lost. And at an auction you can lose a great deal. Even when you win.

It was not supposed to be like this.

The selling off of Ireland’s cultural heritage is decent business. Recently the treasures of what the auctioneer described as “Ireland’s greatest literary and artistic family” netted just shy of £2 million. This was small beer for Sotheby’s, the London auction house that handled the sale, but made for considerable publicity. Admittedly various bothersome academics, artists, concerned citizens and writers (myself among them) got together to object to the sale in the newspapers, and to the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys. But nothing changed; the Yeats Family Collection sale proceeded uninterrupted. If anything, the protests put the prices up.

This sale was, as everyone was at pains to point out, entirely legal. After long years of generosity to scholars and institutions, the family can hardly be blamed; nor really can the joyfully acquisitive auction house – it is after all their business. What is worrying is that no one seemed to think it was our business. Until the collection’s unveiling to buyers a few short weeks beforehand at the Royal Hibernian Academy and online, everything was kept quiet. In fact, those few in the know had been preparing for this for years. We know they knew: an export licence had been granted by the Minister; a beautiful catalogue prepared. Meanwhile the government kept silent: all was in hand, it had a plan, it had made arrangements.

Unquestionably the Yeats Family Collection is the most important to leave Ireland this century. It is too late to dwell on its riches, on its value culturally, spiritually, economically, or the truth that it is more valuable kept together. Contrary to some reports, nothing was withdrawn: every lot intended for sale was put on sale. To be clear then, there was no last-minute change of heart. None was forthcoming. True, separate arrangements had been made for other items the family owned: the National Library of Ireland acquired (with insufficient government help) letters between WB Yeats and his wife; the National Museum was made to get some furniture. In an excitable press release from the Minister these were bundled together with other donations or acquisitions made in the last few years, many in lieu of inheritance tax. Notably, Yeats’s Nobel medal and certificate had been heroically moved from permanent loan in Sligo to public ownership in Dublin at an enormous cost in tax write-offs. But in total the government had spent considerably less on the sale itself than a modest house goes for in Dublin or Galway these days. Probably we should be grateful.

After all, the Yeats sale was high-profile stuff, arousing the interest of The New York Times, and protests from every Yeats society around the world and hundreds of concerned academics and writers – among them Michael and Edna Longley, Paul Muldoon, Vona Groarke, Nick Laird, Mike McCormack, the artists John Behan and Jesse Presley Jones, and the translator Marie Heaney, widow of Seamus. But this wasn’t the first time. Earlier this year a large Flann O’Brien collection was sold off at Fonsie Mealy auctioneers. Last year, despite a fuss, the Beit paintings disappeared, among them prized works by Rubens and François Boucher. The year before Jack B Yeats almost single-handedly kept the market happy, the Irish Arts Review asking rhetorically why so many of his paintings, owned by Irish clients, were sold in London (it suspected tax reasons). Right now the house at Ussher’s Island where Joyce set his greatest short story, “The Dead”, is up for sale. Next year it will be something else.

There seems to be no stopping this process of blood-letting. On November 14th, further priceless treasures from the Yeats family collection, including manuscripts with early poems and drawings by WB Yeats himself are to be cast to the winds at a further auction in Kilkenny. Freedom of information requests reveal the Minister’s steadfast refusal to contribute to rescuing the priceless lifetime correspondence between Yeats and his former lover Olivia Shakespear (despite the desperate pleas of the National Library of Ireland) due to the “limits of its capital resources”. On these terms cultural resources, even for the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, count for very little.

The National Cultural Institutions Act (1997) imposes on the Minister for Culture the responsibility to protect Ireland’s national heritage. This being a big burden for one person, the Minister is enjoined to consult, chiefly with the National Library of Ireland and the National Museum of Ireland (whose boards are established by the Act) across Kildare Street from the ministry. (The National Gallery of Ireland is granted a lesser role – presumably it is too far for the minister to be expected walk around to Merrion Square.) While no provision is made for the intrinsic value of keeping collections together, the Act provides for a register of “cultural objects” (vaguely defined, but including archaeological artefacts, artworks, and manuscripts) and gives the minister complete power to grant or withhold a licence for export any item considered important, whether on this register or not, to impose conditions (such as demanding access or digital copies), and even to acquire it by vesting order for the benefit of the state. Once begun, the application process must take at least a year. All this gives the minister considerable powers. No doubt they could be enhanced. But they are not used.

Never in the history of the Irish state has an export licence been refused. Not once. These are murky waters. The Act makes no requirement for secrecy. Still, the natural reflexes of government being to shelter its decisions from its citizens’ gaze for our own good, in practice this process is sewn up on the quiet within a few hundred yards of official Ireland. The Dublin institutions have knowledgeable staff and clearly try to take advice, but they also have slender resources and even slenderer yearly budgets. Depending on who you believe, for the Yeats sale they were given first refusal, or they were not told. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle: some things were evidently overlooked; equally some pictures were taken directly from the vaults of the National Gallery where they were on loan after an exhibition. The success of the whole operation can be judged by the fact that all three of these august institutions found themselves scrambling to bid on the open market, embarrassed into last minute largesse, some of it wonderfully misdirected. Auctions present up to 25 per cent buyer’s premium, around 5 per cent in tax, and in addition take 10 per cent from the seller. Add the exchange rate, natural inflation and increases driven by the interest of international bidders and one can expect a mark up of minimum 50 per cent, and in desirable lots a price ten or twenty times this. It must be a grimly horrifying position to be in, gambling tightly-hoarded resources of public money on inflationary markets. One can almost smell the fear in their nostrils, a dim memory of TV screens, betting slips, and overflowing ashtrays.

If official Dublin was embarrassed, the rest of the country, with all its museums, galleries, universities, and institutions crying out for support, could safely be kept in the dark. There was no chance to look for donors, raise funds, or make offers at reasonable prices, never mind ask for state help. No matter. What good could come of it? When was art ever made or appreciated outside Dublin? Any investment the Yeats family ever made in the West of Ireland, in the mythology and landscape of Sligo, of Galway, and all their efforts to make visible the culture, language, and craft of the West was, no doubt, a waste of time. After all, if we care to we can all visit Dublin to pick over what is left.

This is a broken system, a facade masking a shameful cultural cringe and obeisance to rampant commerce. Its economic illiteracy is depressing. If the human race has not blown itself up or global-warmed itself to boiling point, for hundreds of years people will be visiting Ireland to learn more about its writers and artists. It would be nice, as well as economically prudent, to have something to show them. It would be hard to exaggerate the government’s disdain for the cultural awareness of its own people, or for the many others around the world who care. After all, morally and legally it holds these items on trust, for us, and for future generations.

In appearance, Sotheby’s is nothing like a bookmakers. Their auction room is shiny and new, glowing with health, couched within the company’s old premises at Bond Street. This sits at the heart of a London the Yeatses knew well, even if for many years they couldn’t afford public transport and WB Yeats walked back and forth from the family home in Hammersmith to the British Museum (with inked-in feet so sock-holes didn’t show). At Kensington Olympia, round the corner from an earlier residence, Jack Butler Yeats, on a free pass, was captivated by circus acts, watching Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Rodeo again and again in sawdust and limelight. His interest took flight in unsurpassed sketchbooks of Irish cultural life, in the majestic watercolour The Old Ring Master and the oil painting The Runaway Horse, all on sale here. Later for a time WB had a flat at Woburn Buildings, St Pancras, enduring church bells and First World War bombs while bitterly denouncing conscription and demanding the return of the Hugh Lane paintings. With his family in Ireland, meanwhile, he was helping to found a national theatre, a literary society, a gallery, a dance school, a printing press and craft workshop, a modern literature, a cultural revival, even a coinage: all the ingredients of a new nation.

So for all their London connections, making the journey in shipping crates and pallets, it was clear the Yeatses were not coming home. For WB Yeats London was never the same after the death of his old flame and steadfast friend Olivia Shakespear. (Maybe that’s why their rich lifetime correspondence didn’t sell – at the time of writing it is still available.) That genial self-portrait of old John Butler Yeats, ten years in the making, his face appearing behind the auctioneer’s shoulder and casting a cold quizzical eye on proceedings, struck quite the wrong note. Pollexfen, the Sligo family name, was mangled in the auctioneers’ English mouths; Jack’s wife Cottie, Mary Cottenham Yeats, a hugely talented artist in her own right, reduced for the occasion, as she never was in life, to plain Mary Yeats. Of course, the Yeats name sells, in theory at least, though poor John Butler Yeats had drawn so many exquisite pencil sketches that he couldn’t keep pace, many going for heartbreakingly affordable sums. Still, Jack B Yeats with his dashing oils and finest comic robes in a wealth of early sketchbooks was buoyant, the sisters Susan (known as Lilly) and Elizabeth (Lolly), unmatched pioneers in embroidery and hand-printing, held their own, and anything connected to the name WB Yeats, from hairbrushes to chess sets, from candlesticks and chairs to card indexes, from intimate drawings of him by his father to his own drawings, early art-school efforts in notebooks alongside his own poems (an astonishing record of his early creative practice, unseen by scholars), or his colourful pastels of Coole Park and its lost library, victims of an earlier bout of Irish philistinism, went many times over the estimate.

WB Yeats is valued extraordinarily highly, by India, by Melbourne, by Japan, by Finland, by Hungary, by St Petersburg, all across America North and South. I remember a foreign affairs official expressing surprise at the recognition WB Yeats received worldwide for his anniversary year, Yeats2015. If only they’d known, he was saying, they could have done much more, instead of committing so much effort (and cash) into vainly promoting 1916 to countries like South Africa and South Korea who have their own equally valid foundation myths (and continuing political tensions) to worry about.

But can cultural worth be measured by numbers and nations? Is it only subjective? About this we all have questions to answer. My own profession, literary criticism (Greek etymology kritein, to choose) too often chooses not to choose. Legitimate concerns about old-school (largely white male) canons and a history of colonial patronisings have made academics in particular self-conscious, cautious, embarrassed to venture opinion (publicly at least) on artistic value or propose any criteria of taste. This sort of thing seems to trouble art historians less: to detect the hand of the old master is still part of the trade, no doubt because so much money is at stake; which in itself can skew the picture to neglect women artists, say, or diversity in cultural heritage. Each could learn from the other, and both could do more to be open about their judgments. After all, when pushed, even academics follow the lead of artists and writers and put their mouths where their money is, demonstrating considerable conviction about what things are worth.

Audaciously, Yeats’s thundering poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” connects a lack of care for art objects to violence against the person. It is only too easy, the poem suggests, to find those that would “burn that stump on the Acropolis” and sell off its golden treasures: they have the same minds as those that kill. “Gone are Phidias’s famous ivories”, says the poem, in virtually the same breath condemning such “traffic in grasshoppers and bees” and British atrocities in the War of Independence. Civilisation depends on upholding the value of human life and the value of art. Three vitriolic stanzas mock in turn the great, the wise, the good, for standing by as dragons and weasels encroach on civilisation’s hard-won values. And then the poet turns on himself, as on us:

Mock mockers after that
That would not lift a hand maybe
To help good, wise or great
To bar that foul storm out, for we
Traffic in mockery.

To do nothing is a choice. On these terms it is acquiescing to violence. Doing something must surely be down to us. The government spent more on just its bid for the few weeks of the Rugby World Cup than it did on a cultural investment lasting for generations. But why is it left in their hands? Why such secrecy? Why such indecent haste? Do we all traffic in mockery? Can we not do things any better?

It easy to envisage a system that is transparent, accountable, and independent of the relentless grind of government. Consider: an independent board on which openly appointed members with expertise in manuscripts, archaeology, literature, furniture, visual arts, and sculpture, serve terms of several years. For individual items or collections an additional small group of specialists are called in, public and expert submissions are accepted, the board conducts open deliberations and makes decisions according to published principles, which are then communicated to the department and released on the web. Once a stay of export is granted the items or collections in question are publicised widely for several years to allow institutions and individuals in the country to band together to raise money, whether through private donations, public appeals or negotiated tax relief. In Ireland there are many who would help, around the world many more.

It is not an impossible dream. Such a system pertains over the water, managed by Arts Council England for the UK. It has recently saved Titians, Bacons, Van Dycks; medieval English-Latin dictionaries and the archives of John Logie Baird. It is not perfect, but would take very little to implement here. Art does not every time have to face the impossible choice between kidney machines and clay figurines. The best part is that this hardly costs anything, in fact saves governments and taxpayers considerable money and trouble. It allows in the people, not just the experts, and the whole country, not just the narrow minds and pickpockets of Kildare Street.

Of all the family, Jack Yeats would have best appreciated the irony. He knew a bit about boxing, horse racing, and about the gaming of the system. Because who wins in this game, finally? Not the Minister, who looks dilatory at best; not the government, which looks petty and incompetent. Not those national institutions who, time after time, have to proclaim a defeat or a no-score draw as a remarkable victory. Not scholarship, left scrabbling in the dark or traipsing off to America to beg the remains of Ireland’s heritage. Not the owners or inheritors of these treasures, who might be offered at least as much as they get after the auctioneers’ cut to keep the treasures in Ireland. With such commissions from sellers and premiums and mark-ups from buyers, maybe, yes, the auction houses. But not Ireland. Not art. Not literature. Not generations to come who will never get to see what has been lost. Not millions of visitors who visit Ireland every year hoping see what all the fuss was about.

Trying to encourage Augusta Gregory to buy one of his paintings Jack Yeats put it only half-mockingly:


Poems live. They can be taken anywhere. Their manuscripts may resurface, eventually. The pictures will live, too, although they will be shut up for a time, each share of the world kept hidden from the people. Yet, stripped, mocked, and trafficked, Irish culture diminishes a little more each time. Until something is done, for the nation’s and for art’s sake we have to hope WB was right to say when casting off his early poetry like a coat of embroideries:

Song, let them take it
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

There is enterprise, too, in valuing culture. Here we could learn a lesson from Sotheby’s; even, you might say, at the bookmakers.


Adrian Paterson is lecturer in English at NUI Galway and the curator of Yeats & the West.



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