Candid collection of the famous for sale

Photograph auction: Fruits of businessman's unusual hobby will net thousands

Arts Correspondent

A remarkable collection of autographed photographs of many of the world's most famous men and women - including Freud, Matisse, Oscar Wilde and Wallis Simpson - are to come up for sale next month.

On offer is an almost naked Mata Hari, the notorious First World War spy executed by the French, wearing little more than an elaborate head- dress and ankle chains, a quizzical-looking Sigmund Freud brandishing a cigar, and a ramrod-backed Charles Dickens staring out of the window.

The rare picture of the writer of such classics as Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby is a signed carte de visite valued at $2,000 to $3,000 to in the auction at Christie's East in New York on 17 April.

Even more valuable is a large cabinet photograph of Annie Oakley, the pint-sized marksman who could split a playing card held on edge at thirty paces, which is valued at up to $3,500.

But perhaps the best is the portrait of Henri Matisse, the painter and leader of the iconoclastic Fauves, taken sitting respectably on a horse wearing a bowler hat ($3,000 to $4,000).

The photographs - more than 300 in all - were collected by a Boston investment property broker, M Wesley Marans.

The businessman began collecting the pictures 29 years ago after being shown an autographed photograph of the gangster Al Capone, which belonged to a psychiatrist friend. "The richness of the image, together with the intriguing signature, `spoke' to me," he explains.

He continued buying images for three decades, gathering photographs of celebrities throughout the world following the 1839 invention of photography. Mr Marans has been forced to sell by the value of his collection, which he removed from his home ten years ago.

"I have come to the conclusion that just as I have passionately enjoyed collecting and the quest, so should others have this pleasure, rather than locking the pictures in a bank vault," he writes in the foreword to the catalogue.