Hammer poised on life of the courtesan queen

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The ghost of Pamela Harriman, coiffured and with her broadest hostess's smile, will be presiding at Sotheby's in New York tonight as the paintings, furniture and memorabilia she collected on a climb from courtesan to United States ambassador go under the auctioneer's hammer.

Ambassador Harriman died in February, aged 76, after suffering a stroke during her daily workout at the Paris Ritz. The style and location were entirely appropriate, but eyebrows have been raised since over the haste of her heirs to sell off her effects.

The auction over three days will consist of 1,150 lots of paintings, furniture, decorations, books, wine and Churchill memorabilia from her homes in Paris, Washington and Middleburg, Virginia. The last two residences are to be auctioned too.

The beneficiaries will be the former Tory MP Winston Churchill, Mrs Harriman's only son, and his estranged wife, Minnie. Sotheby's estimate the auction - excluding the two properties - will realise some pounds 3.5m.

Mr Churchill scooped pounds 12m when National Lottery money was used to buy his grandfather's wartime papers for the nation. However, the 1994 separation from Minnie cost him a reported pounds 5m and he faces massive tax bills. Mrs Harriman left her most valuable possession, a Van Gogh worth pounds 50m, to an art gallery.

The life of Pamela Harriman, daughter of the 11th Lord Digby and thrice married - first to Randolph Churchill and last, and most successfully, to the Democrat diplomat Averell Harriman - was the stuff of novels.

Diana Brooks, President of Sotheby's Holdings, talks of Mrs Harriman's "refined taste and flair" and says the collection, filling almost 500 pages of a pounds 60 catalogue, offers "a fascinating glimpse into the life of one of the most accomplished women of our era".

Press descriptions have been more candid. In post-war Paris she had a succession of lovers, including Gianni Agnelli, heir to the Fiat empire, and Baron Elie de Rothschild. She was dubbed "the world's expert on rich men's ceilings". But her return to the French capital as ambassador in 1992, after years as a Democrat fund raiser, was a golden final chapter, marred only by financial squabbles with her relatives.

Highlights among the works to be auctioned are 19th- and 20th-century paintings and drawings by George Seurat, John Singer Sargent, Paul-Cesar Helleu and Andre Derain. Sargent's Staircase in Capri, an oil on canvas painted in 1878, is expected to fetch more than pounds 600,000.

For non-art collectors, the main items of interest will be the Kennedy and Churchill memorabilia, including an old rocking chair said to have been given to Averell Harriman by President Kennedy and the fountain pen used by Kennedy to ratify the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963.

Sir Winston, Mrs Harriman's father-in-law, is featured in bronze - a portrait head by Oscar Nemon (estimated pounds 3,600) - in photographs, and in a charcoal drawing, Playing Cards, by Paul Maze (up to pounds 2,800).

There is also a cheque signed by Churchill for pounds 5/3s in favour of Averell Harriman accompanied by a letter from Churchill's personal secretary. The Prime Minister and Mr Harriman, then US ambassador to Britain, used the card game bezique to relax in wartime. As the letter explains: "Mr Churchill asks me to send you the enclosed cheque for pounds 5.3.0. in settlement of his bezique debt, with many apologies for the delay." The great man's grandson and namesake is depending on a rather large cheque at the close of proceedings in New York.