The big book on furnishings

It may be hard to judge a book by its cover, but it's easy to see how the famous and infamous, the billionaire and bon vivant live by their auction catalog. Not just the province of the pedigreed or profligate, sale catalogs from auction houses such as Sotheby's, Christie's and Bonhams & Butterfields provide design inspiration while sating less decorous curiosities. And they're educational.

Take the Sotheby's sale on Saturday of property from the collection of Marella Agnelli, widow of Giovanni Agnelli, the stylish patriarch of the Fiat auto conglomerate. Equally famous for her taste, Agnelli, one of Truman Capote's society women "swans," has been a regular in the international press for decades. The lushly photographed, 192-page catalog of contents from the Agnellis' New York apartment highlights French, Russian and Continental furniture as well as decorative objects.

Interested in china that belonged to Catherine the Great of Russia? Raise that paddle, pick up the phone or click online at Sotheby's website. Furniture more your thing? How about a pair of neoclassical commodes (circa 1780) decorated with panels painted with pastoral scenes (estimated selling price: as much as $800,000).

Auction lots, with detailed descriptions, provenances and estimated selling prices, can be viewed online until the day of the sale. But only the catalog has photographs of the Agnelli apartment designed by Renzo Mongiardino and Peter Marino. It's not just about acquiring goods, but good ideas as well. The catalog is $52 plus shipping, www.sothebys.com.

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Andrew Myers

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