Picasso's 'Boy with a Pipe' could sell for record $100m

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The Independent US

The fabled private art collection of one of America's most glittering patrician couples is to go under the hammer at Sotheby's in New York tomorrow night, and is likely to break a string of auction records.

Chief among them may be the world's top price for a single work of art - a possible $100m (£56m) for Picasso's "Boy with a Pipe", which is the star item in the collection of Mr and Mrs John Hay Whitney.

Several of the other 43 paintings in the sale, especially impressionist masterpieces, are likely to sell for many millions of dollars each. It includes three paintings each by Degas and Renoir, and noted works by Monet, Manet and Pisarro. The final sale total could comfortably exceed $150m.

"Mr and Mrs John Hay Whitney were among the foremost collectors in the United States and their art collection was one of the greatest American collections of impressionist and modern art of the 20th century," said Bill Ruprecht, president and chief executive of Sotheby's Holdings. "This is the most extraordinary group of paintings Sotheby's has ever had the opportunity to auction."

The couple that formed the collection were extraordinary themselves. John Hay Whitney, grandson of Abraham Lincoln's secretary, was American ambassador to Britain from 1956 to 1961. He founded the first venture capital firm in the US, was editor-in-chief and publisher of The New York Herald Tribune from 1961-1966 and chairman of the International Herald Tribune from 1966 until his death in 1982. His wife Betsey was first married, from 1930 to 1940, to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's eldest son James. When she became Mrs Whitney in 1942, she and her husband assumed a role at the summit of the American social firmament which lasted all their lives. They became philanthropists and art collectors in the grand manner. Their collection was thought to be among the best in private hands in the world. On Mr Whitney's death, his widow created the Greentree Foundation, a charitable trust devoted to the furtherance of international relations and human rights, named after the couple's home in Manhasset, Long Island. At her death in 1998 she left the paintings to the trust, which is selling them.

The star of a remarkable show is undoubtedly Picasso's "Boy with a Pipe", painted in 1905. "This is without question one of the most beautiful of the artist's Rose Period paintings and one of the most important early works by Pablo Picasso ever to appear on the market," said Charles Moffett, Sotheby's co-director of impressionist and modern art.

The melancholy and charming work depicts a young Parisian boy holding a pipe - perhaps as an emblem of maturity rather than a purveyor of tobacco smoke - but also, intriguingly, wearing a headband of roses. "It is this haunting ambiguity that has ensured for "Boy with a Pipe" its status as one of Picasso's most celebrated images of adolescent beauty," Mr Moffett said.

The model for the work is thought to have been an adolescent known as "p'tit Louis", frequently to be found at Picasso's residence, the Bateau Lavoir in Montmartre, along with, in Picasso's own words, "local types, actors, ladies, gentlemen, delinquents... He stayed there, sometimes the whole day. He watched me work. He loved that."

"Boy with a Pipe" is officially estimated by the auction house to sell for more than $70m but privately it is thought that it may go for much more.

Mr Whitney took a great interest in horse racing and collected accordingly. Two of Degas' best racing paintings, "Avant la course", painted circa 1882-88, and "La promenade des chevaux", circa 1892, are thought to make between $5m and $7m each. An even heftier price is expected for Manet's "Courses au Bois de Boulogne", the last and finest of his treatments of equestrian subjects. Painted in 1872, it is estimated to sell for $30m.