If the senior executives of Lehman Brothers sought an omen as they contemplated the biggest bankruptcy in history on 15 September 2008, they need have looked no further than one of the oil paintings hung on the walls of the boardroom in London's Canary Wharf – a dramatic depiction of a ship being wrecked in heaving seas.
Sadly for Lehmans' creditors, the presence of the canvas – suitably entitled A Dismasted Frigate Wallowing in a Gale – did nothing to avert a $600bn financial disaster. But those left out of pocket can at least take small comfort from the fact that the painting will be sold next week for their benefit, along with 300 other bankers' baubles ranging from two Lucian Freud sketches to a collection of "pillows" carved from semi-precious stones.
The corporate art collection amassed by the merchant bank to decorate its 1 million sq ft European headquarters in Canary Wharf was put on show yesterday ahead of a sale by Christie's next Wednesday which is expected to net around £1.3m – or 0.0003 per cent of the total losses of the institution.
Among the items being offered at the auction, are the 10ft-long company sign prised off the wall of the 31-floor HQ building (valued at £2,000 to £3,000) and a selection of high-end office fripperies including two copies of the complete works of Shakespeare (£200-£500), an ivory-handled tea caddy (£500-£800) and eight cut-glass ink wells (£800 to £1,200).
There are also tantalising glimpses of the way in which Lehmans' considered itself to be an unshakeable part of global finance. The first lot in the sale is a plaque commemorating the opening of the Canary Wharf building in 2004 by Gordon Brown, then Chancellor. Benjamin Clark, director of corporate collections at Christie's, said: "We look forward to presenting what is a fascinating glimpse into the history of what was a giant of the financial world."
The 300 lots include a large number of works by modern artists including Gary Hume, Robert Rauschenberg and Andreas Gursky, whose large photograph of a frenetic New York Stock Exchange is the most expensive work in the collection and will be sold separately next month with a value of between £100,000 and £150,000.
Under the guiding hand of the founding Lehman family, the bank had collected art and furniture since the 19th century. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), the liquidators of what is left of the bank, said the more traditional works, including the collection of 18th-century maritime art, were distributed around the top floor of the building used by the most senior executives.
The modern works were put on display for the lower ranks, including a photo collage by Al Souza entitled Melon Balls which was put up outside the staff restaurant.