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Sotheby's opens art vault that's 'like a glimpse back in time'

A detail of André Derain's Arbres à Collioure.

In what is shaping up to be the art event of the year, Sotheby's plans to auction off a collection of 140 treasures entombed in a Paris bank vault for 70 years.

Paintings, prints, books and drawings by some of the greatest artists of the late 19th and early 20th century - including Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and Pierre-Auguste Renoir - are expected to fetch about $26-million (U.S.) when they go under the hammer in June, in both London and Paris.

The works - under the title Trésors du Coffre Vollard - constitute the remnants of a vast collection of 600 pieces assembled by legendary Paris art dealer Ambroise Vollard, an early champion of several once-unknown painters who became titans of the modern art world.

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Helena Newman, vice-chairwoman of Sotheby's Impressionist and modern art department, saw the works for the first time a few weeks ago. "It was amazing - extraordinary really," she said. "It was like a glimpse back in time … like walking back into Vollard's Paris gallery."

It was Mr. Vollard who accorded Picasso, then 19, his first solo show in Paris in 1901; he did the same for Henri Matisse in 1904.

When Mr. Vollard died, heirless, in 1939, his vast collection was left to distant relatives and friends, but much of it was consigned to Erich Slomovic, a young Croatian Jew who was his gallery assistant. As war spread in Europe, Mr. Slomovic deposited 140 pieces with a Paris bank, Société Générale, in 1940, and fled with some 400 other works back to the Balkans.

In 1942, Mr. Slomovic, along with his father and brother, were murdered at the Sajmiste concentration camp outside Belgrade - but the paintings somehow escaped Nazi attention and eventually were given to Belgrade's National Museum.

The Paris cache was sealed, under French law, for 40 years and only uncovered in 1979.

When they realized the treasures in their custody, bank officials tried to organize a sale to collect four decades worth of unpaid storage fees. But heirs to the estates of Mr. Vollard and Mr. Slomovic commenced legal action to block it, each claiming ownership of the works.

The financial stakes involved were so great, it took close to another 40 years to reach an out-of-court settlement. Although details of the 2006 arrangement are unknown, Sotheby's officials have said the proceeds of the two sales will go to descendants of Mr. Vollard's legatees, who sanctioned the impending sale.

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The centrepiece of the catalogue is expected to be Derain's Arbres à Collioure, which Sotheby's predicts will sell for £14-million (or $21.5-million), breaking the artist's record of £8.5-million.

Sotheby's plans to exhibit it in New York, Moscow and Hong Kong before showing it, along with the rest of the Vollard works, in London.

Other important works include Paul Cézanne's Portrait d'Émile Zola, an oil on canvas, estimated at £725,000, Picasso's 1904 etching Le Repas Frugal, estimated at £360,000; and a monotype of a brothel scene by Edgar Degas, La Fête de la Patronne, circa 1878-79, estimated at £275,000.

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