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A major trove of paintings by American realist Andrew Wyeth is headed for the auction block in New York as part of the spring sales of American art. The first six works in the collection, which is owned by Japan's Sumitomo Bank, go on sale at Christie's New York on May 28, 2000. Star of the lineup is the almost abstract tempera painting of a hayloft, Hay Ledge (1957), which sources say carries a presale estimate of $2.5 million-$3.5 million. Other works include Rum Runner (1974) (est. $500,000-$700,000), a study for Rum Runner (est. $30,000-$50,000), Cider Barrel (1969) (est. $300,000-$500,000), The Finn (1969) (est. $300,000-$500,000) and Fence Line (1969) (est. $120,000-$180,000). The total high estimate of all six works is almost $6 million.

The deaccession of the bank's Wyeth collection, which was originally formed by legendary Hollywood producer Joseph E. Levine in the 1960s and '70s, is being undertaken after long study. If the May auctions go well, the bank is expected to consign to auction the rest of its Wyeth holdings -- approximately 20 works, including one of the artist's masterpieces, Weatherside (1967). If the results at Christie's are disappointing, the bank will sell the works privately to Wyeth collectors, who have long coveted the Sumitomo trove.

The collection has a tortuous history. Former Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Hoving provides the following account:

Joseph E. Levine was the quintessential Hollywood swashbuckler producer and mogul. "He bought Godzilla for under $1,000 and Americanized it by having a two-minute clip of a U.S. newscaster giving a flash out of Hawaii, 'Giant lizard kills Japan.' That's all he did -- and the movie became an unbelievable money-maker. He was also famous for his campy Hercules movies.

But Levine was also a dynamic creative force who possessed the tender sensibilities of an artist or poet. He invented the multiple-theater simultaneous launch. And is remembered fondly for his marketing of the serious documentary on the peoples of New Guinea, The Sky Above and the Mud Below -- in the Broadway movie house where the film opened, he slathered the marquee with marvelously lurid lines like "horrifying rites!" and "blood-curdling scenes." In the lobby were several registered nurses standing by with oxygen for those who fainted during the film.

"Joe from Billerica Street, Boston," as he used to call himself, started becoming a multimillionaire by opening Nikolodeons and quickly rushed into making movies. Some rank among the greatest, like A Lion in Winter, Two Women for which Sofia Loren got an Oscar, and A Bridge Too Far, which was panned as stiflingly long when it came out but which looks darned good today.

He was hooked on art from his early forays into the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Gardner Museum, where he fell for the old masters and John Singer Sargent. Eventually he fell in love with the works of Andrew Wyeth and assembled a collection of 26 exceptional works depicting the painter's two worlds of Olson's in Maine and Kuerner's in Pennsylvania. He also bought Christina Olson's house in Cushing, Me.

In the 1970s Joe approached me to mount a show at the Met of prime works of these two worlds. I was keen, for not only would the museum be able to show publicly for the first time Wyeth's pre-studies with Levine picking up the tab, but Joe assured me that he'd give his collection to the Met and make sure that there'd be an endowment sufficient to keep in fine shape plus funds for galleries in the American Wing to house the material. The endowment was very generous. I agreed.

The show was a hit. Before the Levine promised gift could be ironed out, I retired. Joe's ardor for the Met cooled when one of the members of the board of trustees let it be known that he wasn't too happy about the gift from that "Hollywood Jew."

Eventually Levine sold the stunning collection to the late collector Arthur McGill, who promised publicly to give it to his local museum in Greenville, N.C. He reneged and sold the entire lot to a Japanese gallery for a reported $25 million. At the glittery dinner celebrating the opening of an exhibition of his treasures at the Portland (Me.) Museum -- works he'd vowed never to part with -- McGill knew that he'd already passed them off.

Sumitomo took possession of the works as part of one of Japan's biggest art scandals of the early 1990s, involving a now-defunct Osaka-based trading firm called Itoman that made scores of questionable art and real estate transactions. Sumitomo was closely associated with Itoman, and in the end took over its assets -- and losses. If the May sale at Christie's goes well, the bank plans to sell the rest of the collection, which includes:

1. Sea Snails, 1953, watercolor
2. Teel's Island, 1954, watercolor and drybrush
3. Tom's Shed, 1960, watercolor
4. Peter Wyeth Hurd, 1961, watercolor and drybrush
5. Kitchen Garden, 1962, watercolor
6. Weather Side, 1965, tempera
7. Buzzard's Glory, 1968, tempera
8. Christina's Teapot, 1968, watercolor
9. Logging Scoot, 1968, watercolor
10. Elwell's Sawmill, 1968, watercolor
11. End of Olsons, 1969, tempera
12. The Swinger, 1969, watercolor and drybrush
13. Rain Clouds, 1969, watercolor
14. Spruce Bough, 1969, watercolor
15. Nogeeshik, 1972, tempera
16. Canada, 1974, watercolor and drybrush
17. From the Capes, 1974, tempera
18. The Kass, 1975, watercolor
19. Loden Coat, 1975, watercolor
20. The Quaker, 1975, tempera

Since 1970, Andrew Wyeth has been represented by Frank E. Fowler of Lookout Mountain, Tenn.; his works are also available at Hammer Galleries in New York.