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BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. -- Nearly 50 years ago, Andy Warhol wanted to paint Detroit art enthusiast Florence Barron, but she insisted that he create a portrait of himself.
Then an unknown, one of the most important artists of the last century created his first self-portrait, for which Barron paid him $1,600 in five installments. After she died, the Warhol was passed on to Barron's only son and his wife, collectors who also inherited an eye for supporting artists before they are discovered.
But Warhol's four-panel acrylic silkscreen is moving on to another life. Next month, the artist's first self-portrait goes up for auction at Christie's in New York and could fetch $20 million to $30 million.
"She would be delighted knowing that others in the world were going to be able to share in it, and be a part of it," said her son, Guy Barron, a real estate developer from Bloomfield Hills.
A Connecticut native, Florence Barron met her husband, S. Brooks Barron, when they were in their 20s and he was working as a waiter at a summer resort. He went on to attend law school at the University of Michigan and, soon after, the couple married and settled in Detroit during the 1920s.
They had little money, but during the Depression she managed to save food money and bought artwork, such as a piece of Tiffany glass from Hudson's after it was marked down several times on clearance.
"She had an eye," said Nora Barron, Florence Barron's daughter-in-law, who studied art history at Cornell University. "She was very fond of art."
When her husband began to practice law, Florence Barron became an interior decorator. She often would go to New York for clients but also to look at art. While there, she met many of the art dealers and artists during the birth of contemporary art.
"She didn't care what was important," her son said. "She cared about what resonated inside of her, what talked to her."
Over the years, the Barrons amassed what was considered one of the best modern art collections in the United States. Even their onetime home in northwest Detroit, built by architect Minoru Yamasaki, was considered a work of art by some.
They were early supporters of pop art heavyweights such as Warhol and Claes Oldenburg. But their interests spanned a wide variety of styles and periods.
Brooks Barron died in 1999 at age 95. The couple had been married for 70 years.
At the time of his death, Samuel Sachs II, former head of the Detroit Institute of Arts, said that the Barrons "mentored a whole generation of collectors."
Florence Barron died later in 1999 of congestive heart failure, at the age of 97.
Guy and Nora Barron inherited the Warhol self-portrait, which hung in the foyer of their home for years. But they have thought about what will happen when they die since they have two sons, two daughters-in-law and four grandchildren, and art cannot be divided easily.
"One-eighth interest in a seminal piece of art can over the long run mean nothing but trouble," Guy Barron said. "So emotionally, no one in the family wants to sell the painting. No one.
"But intellectually, and understanding the world we live in today, we think it makes great sense to sell the painting and use the proceeds to make life better for all of our family and others."
The couple plans to donate some of the proceeds from the May 11 sale to philanthropies. And they have a lot of hopes for the Warhol in the future.
"We hope that it goes to a home that loves it as much as we do," Nora Barron said.
Detroit News staff writer Jim Lynch contributed to this report.