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Art cache of recluse Huguette Clark revealed, begins world tour before sale

By Bill DedmanInvestigative Reporter, NBC NewsNEW YORK — Masterpieces from the art collection of reclusive heiress Huguette Clark, hidden away like their owner for nearly a century, begin a world tour on Friday, stopping in London, Hong Kong, Tokyo and New York. Christie's will auction the works in May and June.

By Bill DedmanInvestigative Reporter, NBC News

NEW YORK — Masterpieces from the art collection of reclusive heiress Huguette Clark, hidden away like their owner for nearly a century, begin a world tour on Friday, stopping in London, Hong Kong, Tokyo and New York. Christie's will auction the works in May and June.

First, on May 6, four Impressionist paintings will be sold at Christie's in Rockefeller Center, including a Monet from his "Water Lilies" series with an estimated value of $25 million to $35 million. This Monet has not been seen in public since the copper heiress bought it in 1930. Her three paintings by Renoir will also be sold: "Girls Playing Battledore and Shuttlecock," "Chrysanthemums," and "Woman with Umbrella." Together the Renoir trio is estimated to be worth $16.5 million to $25.5 million.

Then on June 18, more than 400 objects collected by Clark and her parents will receive their own spotlight at a sale at Christie's. They include paintings by Americans John Singer Sargent ("Girl Fishing at San Vigilio") and William Merritt Chase ("A Water Fountain in Prospect Park"); a Stradivarius violin ("the Kreutzer," c. 1731) and other musical instruments; rare books (a first edition of Baudelaire's "Les fleurs du mal," a Book of Hours from the 16th century with pages bordered in liquid gold, and a first edition of Whitman's "Leaves of Grass"); European furniture and decorative arts; Chinese works of art; and English silver. (More images are in a press release from Christie's.)

Here are the tour dates for public viewing: London, Jan. 30 through Feb. 4; Hong Kong, April 4-9; Tokyo, April 10-12; and in New York selected items will be on view later in April (exact dates not set). All the Impressionist and Modern art work will be on view May 2-6. All other items will be on view from June 14-17. A catalogue of the collection will be printed this spring.

Huguette (pronounced "oo-GET") Marcelle Clark was the youngest child of former U.S. Sen. William Andrews Clark (1839-1925), one of the copper kings of Montana, a railroad builder, founder of Las Vegas, and one of the richest men of the Gilded Age. Huguette, born in Paris in 1906, was a painter and doll collector who spent her last 20 years living in simple hospital rooms. She attracted the attention of NBC News in 2009 because her fabulous homes in Connecticut, California and New York sat unoccupied but carefully maintained. (See all the stories in the NBC series.)

After Clark died in 2011 at age 104, nineteen relatives challenged her last will and testament, which had cut them out of her $300 million copper fortune. The relatives claimed that she was mentally ill and had been defrauded by her nurse, attorney and accountant. No one was charged with any crime after an investigation by the district attorney's office, but enough questions were raised that the case was settled in September 2013 just after jury selection began. The relatives, who last saw her in 1957 and most of whom never met Clark, will receive $34.5 million. Lawsuits continue as the relatives hope to receive more money from Clark's hospital and doctor. The proceeds from the scheduled sales at Christie's will go back into the estate for distribution under that settlement. (Read a summary of the deal here.)

Though Clark kept much of her art collection under wraps, along with the rest of her life, she was a persistent supporter of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and lent works to it periodically, including two paintings by Sargent and one of the Renoirs. Most of the art collected by her father went to the Corcoran after his death in 1925, after the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York turned it down.

Not for sale are paintings made by Clark herself. Those will go to a new Bellosguardo Foundation for the arts, to be set up at her summer estate in Santa Barbara, Calif. The foundation received her oceanfront property by that name, worth at least $85 million. With only about $5 million in cash — an exact amount still to be determined — the foundation will have to choose a mission and figure out how to fund it. It could become a public museum, or the house could be sold to fund the foundation's charitable efforts. The board members will be appointed, probably by this summer, by the New York attorney general; most will be nominated by the mayor of Santa Barbara.

The foundation also will receive Clark's collection of dolls, mostly from France, Germany and Japan, as well as dollhouses and model Japanese castles she designed, altogether worth an estimated $1.7 million.

Clark's jewelry collection was sold at Christie's in 2012, bringing $18 million to provide cash to keep her estate running during the dispute. Her three apartments on Fifth Avenue sold for a total of $54.8 million. Her Connecticut home, unoccupied since she bought it in 1951, remains on the market at $15.9 million.

Bill Dedman is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller "Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune." The co-author is Paul Clark Newell Jr., Huguette Clark's cousin, who was not involved in the legal contest for her estate.

Other stories in the Clark series: