Great might of the widows; ART MARKET

These are the best sales anywhere since the 1990 market crash
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The Independent Culture
Next week sees striking sales of Impressionist and modern art in New York.

The women who owned it are equally impressive, says Geraldine Norman

WIDOWS are the keynote of next week's spectacular auctions of Impressionist and modern art in New York. Their collections make up the best group of paintings for sale seen anywhere in the world since the market crashed in 1990. Three of the widows have died leaving their heirs with inheritance problems - either tax or family divisions - best resolved by selling the family art collection. The fourth is alive and kicking, fighting in the courts with her stepchildren. She has decided to sell pictures to pay them off. The widows of American multi-millionaires are something very special.

The best pictures are from the late Jean Stralem's estate: a Blue Period Picasso portrait of his Spanish friend Angel Fernandez de Soto which is expected to make over $10m (£6.3m) and two richly decorative studies of a woman in an interior by Matisse, estimated at $6m-$10m (£3.8m-£6.3m) each. The granddaughter of Robert Lehman, a New York banker whose early Italian paintings fill a wing of the Metropolitan Museum, Jean married an investment banker called Donald Stralem. Her art, valued at around $40m (£25.3m), is to be sold by Sotheby's, as is that of the late Margaret Ryan. Mrs Ryan's father was Otto Kahn, a New York banker known as "Otto the Magnificent", while her husband was the grandson of Thomas Fortune Ryan, a Wall Street investor who became the largest single owner of diamond mines in the Bel-gian Congo. For 10 years, from 1945 to 1955, the Ryans bought Impressionist pictures - until they had enough. The 12 paintings and drawings sent for sale by the Ryans' two children are valued at more than $10m (£6.3m).

Christie's is offering a different social mix, combining the property of the late Georgia Colin, an interior decorator married to a corporate lawyer, Ralph Colin (d. 1986), with that of Pamela Harriman, the current US ambassador to France and widow of a fabulously wealthy politician, Averell Harriman. Ralph Colin was famously fired as attorney to the US television company CBS after an argument with its president, William Paley, at a board meeting - not of CBS, but of the Museum of Modern Art, where they were respectively vice-president and president. The Colin collection focuses on the early 20th-century school of Paris, includes a magnificent Modigliani nude, and is valued by Christie's at $28m-$34m (£17.7m-£21.5m).

Pamela Harriman is a widow built on altogether more dramatic lines, as was revealed by an intimate biography published last year, Christopher Ogden Little's Life of the Party. Her second husband, Leland Hayward, described her as "the last great courtesan", according to Little. She was born Pamela Digby of Minterne, in Dorset, and her first husband was Randolph Churchill. She was a regular visitor to 10 Downing Street during the Second World War where she met, and had affairs with, several influential Ameri-cans, including Averell Harriman. After the war she migrated to Europe and had affairs with Gianni Agnelli and Elie de Rothschild before moving to America, where she married the Hollywood impresario Leland Hay- ward, the producer of The Sound of Music.

After Hayward's death, she re-established relations with Averell Harriman, by now a 79-year-old widower. They married in 1971 and on his death 12 years later he left her the bulk of his fortune, said to be worth around $100m (£65m). She inherited his mantle as a fund-raiser for the Democrats and President Clinton has shown his gratitude by making her ambassador to France.

Harriman's children by his first wife, Marie, are currently suing Pamela for having allegedly lost some $20m (£12.7m) through the bad investment of family trusts and for allegedly borrowing another $15m (£9.5) she was not entitled to. The proceeds of the sale of three paintings she has consigned to Chris-tie's, estimated at around $20m (£12.7m), should be enough to settle the dispute.

By a curious twist of fate, the paintings Pamela intends to sell were originally bought by the children's mother, Marie Harriman, who ran an art gallery in New York before the war. The star turn is a Picasso Mre et enfant of 1922 which, unusually for Picasso, has the intimate sweetness of a Renaissance Madonna and Child.

Pamela had hoped the Picasso alone would solve her problem. The New York gallery Pace-Wildenstein had it on offer last year at $25m (£15.8m) but could find no takers. Christie's has slashed the price to $10m (£6.3m). To make up the difference, Pamela has stripped two more of her paintings from the walls of the Paris embassy, a half-length Renoir portrait of Mademoiselle Demarsy estimated at $5m-$7m (£3m-£4.5m), and a late Matisse, Femme au chapeau bleu, estimated at $2.5m-$3.5m (£1.5m-£2m).

In order to be sure that the deal pays off, she has demanded a guarantee from Christie's. They will pay her an agreed minimum figure, probably around $15m (£9.5m), whatever the outcome of the sale; in compensation for taking this risk, they will charge a higher commission rate on any proceeds above the agreed minimum.

Guarantees are generally hated by the auction rooms, who don't want to be landed with expensive unsold paintings. But they are much loved by the executors of estates who are wary, in America especially, of being sued by disgruntled beneficiaries for mishandling art sales. It is also for this reason that executors tend to sell at auction and avoid private dealers, whose transactions are more secret; though dealers often achieve higher prices.

Sotheby's has had to guarantee the sale of the Ryans' pictures; there are two heirs, John Ryan, an executive with a Wall Street securities firm, and the Countess of Airlie, one of the ladies of the Queen's bedchamber. Both spent much of their youth in England since their mother, Margaret Ryan, was a passionate, and well-connected, anglophile.

The Colin heirs have also secured a guarantee from Christie's. Here again there is a British connection; Georgia Colin's daughter Pamela, a journalist, is the widow of Lord Harlech. Her son, Ralph Colin Jnr, became a lawyer and joined his father's law firm.

The Stralem estate appears to have dropped like a ripe plum into Sotheby's lap by a fluke of timing - and they got away without providing a guarantee. Jean Stralem was a Park Avenue grande dame; as well as butlers, chefs and housemaids she had personal lawyers, accountants, art dealers and auctioneers. Her art dealer was Thomas Gibson of Bond Street, her auctioneer Christopher Burge, president of Christie's New York.

But when she died, her executors owed no allegiance to these old friends. Gibson lost out because he was a dealer, while Christie's had just signed up to sell the comparable Colin collection. Sotheby's were able to point out to the Stralem attorney that Christie's would be working doubly hard on Colin because of the guarantee. So the Stralem pictures went to Sotheby's.

Besides the widows' collections, two superb paintings are coming for sale in New York next week from the European art trade. Maurice Reims, the leading Paris auctioneer of the post-war years and still, at 85, a figure to be reckoned with, is selling a Toulouse-Lautrec at Sotheby's. Titled Au lit: le baiser, it depicts two lesbians in a passionate embrace. It is a dazzling painting but it is thought some millionaires (or their wives) may not like the subject, so it has a mere $5m (£3m) estimate.

Meanwhile, Christie's has a small Van Gogh portrait, Jeune homme la casquette, painted in Arles in 1888. It belonged to the late Dr Fritz Nathan, a great Zurich dealer and collector, and is thought to be coming for sale from his sister - Christie's will not comment on its present ownership. It's the best Van Gogh portrait at auction since Dr Gachet made $82.5m (£52m) in 1990, but Christie's estimate is only $7m-$10m (£4m- £6.3m).

Throughout their sales, the auctioneers are playing safe. Jean Stralem was offered $40m (£25.3m) for her Picasso in 1989 by a Japanese collector but Sotheby's estimate is only $10m -$15m (£6.3m-£9.5m). The number of expensive paintings that went unsold in 1991-92 has led to a major lowering of sights. The realistic estimates, combined with the weakness of the dollar, which makes the pictures look cheap to Japanese and Euro-pean buyers, could provide the auctioneers with a very successful week. !