LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Top auction houses in London may not be the first port of call for people interested in seeing top-quality works of art.
To many, Christie's and Sotheby's are the exclusive preserve of the rich and the super-rich, who fill their salerooms and jam the phone lines during auctions where works can fetch several tens of millions of pounds (dollars).
But as both of the world's biggest auction houses are keen to remind the public, their doors are open to anyone interested in displays of works collected from around the world before they go under the hammer. Over the weekend and early next week hundreds of millions of pounds worth of paintings, sculptures, jewels and furniture can be seen at Christie's and Sotheby's ahead of the impressionist, modern and contemporary art auctions over the coming fortnight.
At Christie's, in addition to the impressionist masters adorning the walls of their King Street headquarters, there are paintings, cabinets, parcel-gilt models and more from the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge.
The collection of around 700 works, one tenth of which are on display in London, goes on sale in Paris on February 23-25 and is expected to fetch 200-300 million euros.
Among the top lots is expected to be a Pablo Picasso painting worth an estimated 25-30 million euros.
"It is often not recognized that before every exhibition the doors are open to the public and the works are on display," said Jussi Pylkkanen, president of Christie's Europe.
"This is a free exhibition open to everyone, and with the Impressionist works alongside highlights from the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge, this year it is of the highest quality," he told Reuters.
At Sotheby's in nearby New Bond Street, one of the big attractions at its pre-sale exhibition is a rare sculpture of a young ballet dancer by French impressionist Edgar Degas, expected to fetch up to 12 million pounds.
The auctioneer attracted more than 21,000 visitors to a preview of its sale of new works by British artist Damien Hirst in September, a record for its London showrooms.
Both companies say the works they exhibit are often of museum quality and are rarely, if ever, shown in public.
Art experts will be watching the upcoming London sales closely for fresh clues as to the state of the market, which after years of rapid growth showed signs of slowing sharply last year amid the global financial crisis.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato