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ART for SALE : Estelle Doheny's Collection, One of the Most Valuable Ever Assembled by an American, Goes on the Block at Christie's

October 11, 1987|BEVIS HILLIER | Bevis Hillier is the Los Angeles Times Magazine's Associate Editor at Large

On Oct. 22, Christie's in New York will begin selling the most valuable collection that has ever come to them from an American source: the printed books, illuminated manuscripts and works of art gathered by Estelle Doheny (1875-1958), who married Los Angeles oil man Edward Laurence Doheny in 1900.

Seven sales, spread between October, 1987, and May, 1989, are expected to bring a total in excess of $20 million.

Estelle Doheny, a prominent Roman Catholic philanthropist and the first woman in Southern California to be named a Papal Countess (an honor given by the Pope to prominent Catholic women), left her collections to St. John's Seminary, Camarillo, Calif.--a Spanish-style building she had commissioned in 1939 from architect Wallace Neff. She stipulated that the collections not be sold for 25 years after her death.

In 1986, Archbishop Roger Mahony asked 83-year-old Gerald Lynch, a consultant with Colt Industries Inc. in Burbank, to chair a committee to decide whether the collections should be sold, and if so, by whom.

The committee invited both Christie's and Sotheby's to prepare reports and estimates. For six months the two auction houses were given equal opportunities to view the collections. In February, 1987, Mahony signed a contract with Christie's.

Thursday's sale of 136 books printed before 1500 includes an Old Testament Gutenberg Bible, printed in Mainz, Germany, between 1450 and 1455. Stephen Massey, head of Christie's book department, says it may fetch $1.5 million-$2 million.

More than 40 medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts will be sold at Christie's London salesrooms on Dec. 2. A 1520s Book of Hours with miniatures by the artist named (from this collection) the Doheny Master, may bring $500,000, Christie's suggests. Later sales--one of them at Camarillo in February, 1988--will offer manuscripts by Button Gwinnett, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence (estimate: more than $100,000) and by Edgar Allan Poe (estimate: $8,000-$10,000.)

The works of art and furnishings to be sold include a royal Aubusson tapestry of about 1784 (estimate: $25,000-$30,000) and a Steinway concert grand piano of about 1904 (estimate: $30,000-$50,000.)

Proceeds from the seven sales will be used to establish an endowment fund for the diocesan seminary system in Southern California.

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