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Preview of ‘Sale of the Decade’

Times Art Writer

Twenty-three Impressionist and modern artworks slated for sale April 4 in London go on view Friday through Monday at Sotheby’s Beverly Hills showroom. The weekend show, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., at 308 N. Rodeo Drive, has been staged to promote what the auction house calls “the most important Impressionist sale of the decade in London.”

Fifteen of the works being exhibited--from major artists such as Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh and Pierre-Auguste Renoir--are among 25 paintings and sculptures consigned by the British Rail Pension Fund. The collection is expected to bring a total of $34 million at the London auction.

The remaining eight paintings on display in Beverly Hills are highlights of an additional $50-million sale of 50 works offered by various other owners.

The British Rail Pension Fund bought the 25 Impressionist and modern works between 1974 and 1979 at a total cost of about $6 million, according to Michel Strauss, head of Sotheby’s Impressionist paintings department. Buying strictly for investment and putting about 5% of its investment portfolio into art, the fund bought 2,700 objects “in all fields of art,” Strauss said in a telephone interview.

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The idea was not to build a prestigious, image-enhancing collection, as some American corporations have done, or to establish a permanent monument, but to realize a profit over a few years, Strauss said.

“They asked themselves if this would be a good time to sell, and the answer is clearly yes,” he said. Most collectors hope their purchases will escalate in value, but Strauss said he knew of no other organization that had followed such a straightforward art-investment strategy.

The fund has already sold about 1,000 items from its collection including books, furniture and Japanese art. A group of Chinese porcelains is scheduled to go on the block on May 8 in Hong Kong. The remainder of the collection will be sold over the next few years.

British Rail has “tripled its money” on sales so far, Strauss said. If the Impressionist auction turns out as expected--yielding $34 million on a $6 million investment--the fund will make nearly six times the cost of the art. In a wildly escalating market for Impressionist paintings, the return could be much higher, Strauss said.

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The fund bought many of its Impressionist and modern paintings through Sotheby’s, using Strauss as an adviser. He said he had proposed purchases, but agents of the fund decided which works to bid on and how high to go. British Rail bid anonymously at auction and Strauss said he never knew what they actually bought until after a sale.

British Rail has always looked for “high quality” and “major artists” in potential purchases, he said. “I knew they did not want to be adventurous. It’s quite a conservative collection.”

The two top-priced items in the April 4 auction--and on view in Beverly Hills--are potential record-setters. In the “various owners” sale, “La Maison des Chants,” Paul Gauguin’s 1892 depiction of a group of singers (painted during his first trip to Tahiti), is expected to bring between $10.2 million and $13.6 million, about three times the artist’s record of $4.4 million, set in 1987.

The priciest item in the British Rail collection is Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “La Promenade,” estimated at $6.8 million to $8.5 million. The 1870 Impressionist painting depicts a couple wending their way along a woodland path on a warm summer day. Renoirs have been plentiful at auctions in the last few years, and his record has escalated steadily, stopping at $8.8 million last May with the sale of a painting called “Motherhood.”

Two 1908 works by Claude Monet are among the auction’s big-ticket items, but they aren’t likely to come close to his record of $24.5 million. A shimmering view of the Grand Canal in Venice and a painting of waterlilies are each valued at $5.1 million to $6.8 million.

“Jeune Homme en Bleu,” a 1905 gouache portrait of a pensive juggler from Pablo Picasso’s blue period, is also expected to bring between $5.1 million and $6.8 million. “Mas a Saintes-Maries,” an 1888 ink and pencil drawing of a row of thatched-roof cottages by Vincent van Gogh, is estimated at $2.5 million to $3.4 million.


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