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The vast and sometimes visionary art collection of the Montreal distiller Seagram, assembled under the eye of Samuel Bronfman's daughter Phyllis Lambert, will begin its rapid demise tomorrow night when a New York auction house sells off the company's photography holdings.

Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg is offering the nearly 700 photographs in three sales Friday and Saturday. One of the first corporate collections of photography, it boasts pictures by over 130 American photographers, including Edward Steichen, Weegee, André Kertesz, Louis Faurer, Robert Frank and Walker Evans.

The sale is expected to net $1.5-million to $2.5-million (all amounts in U.S. dollars).

Christie's continues the fire sale next Tuesday with 19th- and 20th-century prints, following with sales of impressionist and modern art (May 7), postwar art (May 14), Latin-American art (May 28) and furniture and other objects (July 23). The company will sell about 2,500 pieces in all.

The French consortium Vivendi Universal, which purchased Seagram in 2000, is urgently disposing of so-called "non-core assets" to pare down its debt of about $17-billion.

As a profitable, independent, family-owned concern, Seagram pursued a policy of artistic enrichment for its employees and the cities it inhabited.

Much of the art collection was purchased to fill the Seagram offices, there to brighten the days of employees.

The photographs have spent their lives travelling from one location to another in the former Seagram empire. The collection had never been hung in one place before its appearance this week at the Chelsea headquarters of Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg.

For some, the event brings to mind Joni Mitchell's lyrics from the song Big Yellow Taxi: "Don't it always seem to go / That you don't know what you've got till it's gone."

"Seeing as it's the only time it's ever been hung on the wall, it has a kind of strength that's greater than the sum of its parts," said Richard Pare, who directed the collecting from 1974 until Seagram stopped buying photographs in 1983. "It's tinged with melancholy."

The wholesale liquidation attracted controversy and bitterness toward Vivendi, particularly from those closest to the collection who no longer have control over its holdings.

Even those conducting the photography sale seem disturbed by the prospect of the collection being broken apart.

"The collection's strength is in the coherence of the works, and how they work together," said Joshua Holdeman, the director of the photography department at Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg. "For some people, this is a very painful process."

Lambert, 75, told The New York Times last year that the dispersal of the collection "is part of a whole Greek tragedy." The photography collection concentrates on scenes of American urban life, from early depictions of the depression-era underclasses of the 1930s to more raucous street scenes of the 1970s.

There are numerous touching Lewis Wickes Hine pictures of child labourers, Edward Steichen has Breadline on 42nd Street (1933) and Walker Evans is represented with some of the rarest photographs in the collection, including a pristine print of his melancholy Main Street, Saratoga Springs, New York (1931).

(Don't look for Canadian content here. The sole example is American photographer Marjorie Content's Quebec from 1932.)

On the lighter side are Helen Levitt's New York (1948), Weegee's Crowd at Coney Island (1940) and Macy' s Parade (1943). Also included is a full edition of William Eggleston's 14 Pictures, which was purchased by Seagram in 1974, at a time when colour photography was not widely considered a significant art form.

Two years later, the Museum of Modern Art held a solo exhibition show of Eggleston's colour photographs, only the second such exhibition in its history.

Though assembled for aesthetic reasons, the photographs have proved an impressive financial investment as well, skyrocketing in value since their acquisition.

"The collection was started in 1972, when photography was not really considered a major force in the art market. Because of the visionary eye and confidence of Lambert and her curators, they were able to assemble great works," said Holdeman.

The collection also displays some of the preoccupations of Lambert, the founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. There are photographs of buildings by Berenice Abbott, Harry Callahan and Nicholas Nixon, as well as an abstract portfolio of water and gas towers by Bernard & Hilla Becher. There are also 37 images by Ezra Stoller of the Seagram Building on Manhattan's Park Avenue, which Lambert persuaded Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design with Philip Johnson in the late 1950s.

The modernist Seagram Building is home to one of the company's most famous pieces of art, Le Tricorne, a 6.6-metre-high curtain that Picasso painted in 1919 for Les Ballets Russes. It was installed in 1959 in the glass-enclosed walkway between the two rooms of the ground floor Four Seasons Restaurant and can be seen from Park Avenue. The Picasso is being sold privately by Christie's, though Lambert has expressed hope that whoever buys it would leave it hanging in the restaurant, as "part of the heritage of New York."

Other highlights of the holdings include Mark Rothko's Brown and Blacks in Reds (1957), which is estimated at $8-million for its May 14 sale, part of a larger Christie's sale of postwar and contemporary art. Roberto Matta's 1942 canvas Endless Nudes, which will be auctioned May 28, carries a presale estimate of $1.5-million. Joan Miro's Peinture, to be sold May 7, is estimated at $400,000 to $600,000.

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