First Night: Great Room welcomes great art and wealth: The Samuel Courtauld Collection; Somerset House, London

THE VENUE is British, as was the collector, the paintings French and priceless, the guest list American and not short of a nickel, writes David Lister.

One of the most striking art exhibitions of the year in Europe opened in London last night in the refurbished Great Room at Somerset House. While British interest prior to the exhibition has been a little muted, America's art aristocracy flew over en masse. The roll call of East coast aristocracy new and old included multi-millionairesses Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, Mrs Drue Heinz the Second, Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt, Ivana Trump, and fashion designer Oscar de la Renta.

The representatives of the American sponsors - none British was forthcoming - the Cantor Fitzgerald securities company, were headed by Mrs Iris Cantor, who hosted the first-night party, to a background of string quartets and floral displays that cost more than the original purchase price of some of the paintings.

Last night was the first time that Samuel Courtauld's complete collection of more than 60 masterpieces by French impressionist and post-impressionist artists - including Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir, Seurat, Gauguin, Degas and Cezanne - has been brought together.

Seventeen paintings have been loaned from private collections and museums to augment the collection that is normally on show, enriching the display by a third. Paintings such as Manet's A Bar At The Folies- Bergere and Le Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe and Van Gogh's Self Portrait With Bandaged Ear, are now hung alongside works by Renoir, Cezanne and Seurat from private collectors and members of the Courtauld family, all in the Great Room originally used by the Royal Academy for its summer exhibitions in the days of Reynolds and Gainsborough.

John Murdoch, director of the Courtauld Institute Galleries, said the collection now rivalled the Barnes Collection, which was recently the subject of a hugely successful exhibition in Paris. 'The joke is that vast numbers of people went over to Paris for that show and here in the centre of London is something as good, if not better.'

(Photograph omitted)

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