Sotheby's doll sale should fetch pounds 3m

Lifelong passions: Dolls go under the hammer to save collector's museum
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The owner of some of the world's finest dolls is to sell her collection to save her other great passion - a museum dedicated to the sculptor who immortalised her. Dina Vierny, the muse and model for the artist Aristide Maillol, is to offer her 500 dolls, together with dolls' houses and automata, for auction at Sotheby's in London this month.

The proceeds, conservatively expected to exceed pounds 3m, will go towards her recently opened museum in Paris. The ambitious plan for a grand exhibition of Maillol's works, which were left to Mrs Vierny when the artist died in 1944, has run seriously over-budget, and in a toss-up between the two collections, the sculpture won.

Speaking from the museum in the rue de Grenelle, Paris, yesterday, Mrs Vierny, 77, said: "I am very sad. But the transformation of the museum has been expensive and I have to pay the bank. I collected the dolls over almost 50 years. But for this, I am willing to sacrifice them."

The collection amounts to more than 650 items and made Mrs Vierny one of the world's last great doll collectors, according to Bunny Campione, Sotheby's dolls expert. Mrs Campione said: "It is just stunning, a lifetime collection of real dedication to something she adores. It must be absolutely terrible for her to see it going under the hammer."

Mrs Vierny was born in Russia but moved to Paris at an early age. She was friends with the writers Andre Gide and Jacques Prevert, and posed for Matisse, Bonnard and Dufy. But it was with Maillol, this famous trio's lesser-known friend, that she was most closely connected. She acted as model for his austere sculptures of the human body and he left her the copyright to all his work when he died.

Highlights of the two-day sale on 17 and 18 October will be several dolls each expected to fetch tens of thousands of pounds. The most valuable are two rare bisque swivel-headed dolls made in France around 1876. One of them is believed to have been made by the firm of Jumeau on the instructions of the French government for the World Exposition in Philadelphia that coincided with America's centenary.

Another rarity is a doll made at the beginning of this century by the German Kammer and Reinhardt factory that Mrs Campione bought from Sotheby's on Mrs Vierny's behalf for, at the time in 1989, a world record price of pounds 90,000.

Mrs Campione said: "I had to ring her at midnight and I was absolutely horrified I'd done the wrong thing." She find, however, that she had not.

The oldest dolls in the sale are an English mother and baby pair made in wood by an unknown but skilled woodworker at around 1690 and 1730 respectively.