Suffolk stage suits sale of Ashton collection: Dalya Alberge finds nostalgia and romance from the world of ballet reflected in items on offer at an out-of-London auction today

BALLETOMANES are being spoilt for choice. Later this year they will be offered the art and antiques of Rudolf Nureyev, the legendary dancer, at a Christie's sale, but today it is the possessions of Sir Frederick Ashton, one of the century's most distinguished choreographers, who died, aged 83, in 1988.

Among the most personal and romantic of some 600 Ashton items is a single ballet shoe bearing a delicately scribbled message by Dame Margot Fonteyn, the ballerina and Ashton's long-standing muse: 'Dear Fred, thank you for the beautiful, wonderful Ondine' - the ballet he devised for her in 1958.

A charming pencil drawing of Mrs Tiggy-winkle, the hedgehog- washerwoman - presented in 1971, the year of Ashton's ballet film, Tales of Beatrix Potter - has a special significance beyond that it bears the hand of Beatrix Potter: Ashton starred as Mrs Tiggy-Winkle. Two glazed figures of Anna Pavlova are a reminder of Sir Frederick's love for the great ballerina.

The auction is being staged at Clare by the Suffolk-based Boardman Fine Art Auctioneers, which specialises in furniture. Suffolk is an appropriate setting: most of the items come from Ashton's Suffolk home, Chandos Lodge, Eye, and he is buried in Yaxley churchyard.

Neil Lanham, owner of Boardman, said: 'Boardman won the job and fought off competition from the London auctioneers.' However, David Llewellyn of Christie's, which is handling the Nureyev collection, said: 'As far as I know, we were never consulted about it. It must have been a local contact which secured the sale for them.' The collection is being sold by Ashton's nephew, Anthony Russell-Roberts.

Unusually, estimated prices have not been published. Although Mr Lanham said that he had valued most items between pounds 100 and pounds 300, he could not forecast the results of such an unprecedented sale.

The pictures in the sale include several painted by artists who were both friends and colleagues, designing for his productions - among them two 1983 stage interiors for The Nutcracker by Peter Blake, and numerous costume designs (including Orpheus and Eurydice featuring Fonteyn) by Sophie Fedorovitch.

The inclusion of a glitter outfit worn by Michael Jackson, the pop star, might be thought to add a previously unknown dimension to Ashton's character. In fact, it comes from a different collection, although it appears in a catalogue whose cover suggests otherwise.

A spokeswoman for Boardman said that 99 per cent of the items in the sale belonged to Ashton, and that the rest were clearly marked at the back of the catalogue and by stickers on the objects.

(Photograph omitted)