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Although it was Christie’s who sold Victorian art (London, 2003) and historical manuscripts (New York 2002) from the Forbes collection, it is Sotheby’s who have poached its potentially most valuable component.

On April 20-21, the York Avenue saleroom will offer almost 200 objets de luxe from the workshop of Peter Carl Fabergé including nine of the fabled 50 Imperial Easter eggs made for the Romanov dynasty to mark the most important day on the Orthodox calendar.

Only the Kremlin (with 10) had more Fabergé eggs than author and publisher Malcolm Forbes (1919-1990).

The collection, begun in 1960 with the purchase of a gold cigarette case, includes the very first Imperial egg, the white enamelled Hen Egg containing a gold hen ‘surprise’ made for Tsar Alexander III in 1885 to present to his wife Maria Feodorovna (estimate $3m-4m), and one of the last, the Order of St George Egg of 1916 marking the 1915 presentation of the Order of St. George to Tsar Nicholas II for his leadership during the First World War (estimate $4m-6m).

Most spectacular is the 1897 Coronation Egg, a gold, guilloche enamel, diamond, and rock crystal fantasy – its surprise is an exact replica of the coach in which Tsarina Alexandra made her grand entry into Moscow – commissioned by Nicholas II shortly after he was crowned leader of an empire that covered one sixth of the earth’s surface. The egg, that took workmaster George Stein 15 months, working 16 hours a day, to complete, is expected to make $18m-24m. Sotheby’s estimate the collection will realise in excess of $90m.

The New York press office also confirmed that Sotheby’s had issued financial guarantees (now commonplace at the top end of the auction business) to the Greentree Foundation.

The charitable concern, established in 1982 to promote international cooperation, are the beneficiaries of 44 paintings from one of the last great American collections in private hands.

The Whitney collection was formed over two generations beginning with Payne and Helen Hay Whitney, heirs to a fortune made from oil, tobacco, railways and real estate and then by their son John Hay Whitney (1904–82), the financier, publisher and former ambassador to Britain, and his wife, Betsey Cushing Roosevelt Whitney, a New York socialite and philanthropist who died in 1998.

The May 5 sale – that follows Sotheby’s $128.3m sale of 50 works from the Whitney estate in 1999 and the bequest of $300m worth of art to four museums – will include major works by Manet, Degas, Blake, Munnings and Sargent.

Highlighting the auction is Garçon à la Pipe (Le jeune apprenti) by Pablo Picasso, painted in 1905 soon after the artist had settled in Montmartre.
This masterpiece of Picasso’s early years, bought by the Whitneys in 1950 and hung in the living room of Greentree, their 400-acre estate in Manhasset, New York, is expected to bring $70m and could threaten Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet as the most expensive painting ever sold at auction.

Most of the paintings will be auctioned in a single owner evening sale in New York with the collection as a whole estimated to bring $140m-190m.