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The $5 million yard sale for old money

Christie's will be selling off some of the remaining treasures of Huguette Clark, the reclusive copper heiress who died in 2011 with a $300 million estate.

The expected auction total, from the sale on Wednesday, is just a fraction of that amount: more than $5 million. The big trophies in her estate, like her homes and her Monet painting, have already sold or are part of other sales, and are not part of that estimate.

But the real value of the "Clark Family Treasures" sale is cultural. The auction of her everyday totems—from flatware and letter openers to first-edition poetry books, candelabras and table bells—provides a window into the fading world of old money. Think of it as one of the final flea markets of the American blue blood and their rarefied rituals.

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Like many pre-war heiresses, Clark busied herself with artistic endeavors aimed at making her cultured and cloistered. The crown jewel of the sale is a painting by John Singer Sargent, one of the American masters, called "Girl Fishing," which could sell for $3 million to $5 million.

John Singer Sargent’s “Girl Fishing” is expected to sell for between $3 million and $5 million.
Source: Christie’s

Clark was also a painter and avid reader. She seemed to have a penchant for painting Geishas, and several are for sale for between $2,000 to $3,000. Yet a piece called "Scene from my Window—Night," shows the bustling city streets from behind the prison-like bars of her golden window. It is literally a picture of the isolation of wealth. (For an in-depth picture of Clark's strange life and the battle over her fortune, "Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark" by Bill Dedman is a great read).

Some of her own books are among the most valuable treasures in the collection. Her first-edition copy of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass " could fetch from $100,000 to $150,000, while copies of Charles Dickens' "David Copperfield and Tale of Two Cities" could go for more than $20,000 each.

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America's early aristocrats were always enamored of the true European blue bloods, especially the French. Included in Clark's sale is Charles Baudelaire's volume of poetry "Les Fleurs Du Mal" that could go for $80,000 to $120,000.

There are decorative items and furniture as well. A Louis XV mantle clock could go for $100,000 to $150,000, and a pair of Louis XV candelabras could go for $60,000 to $90,000. And there are rooms full of French-imperial winged armchairs, bureaus and dressing tables.

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The family silver, of course, is being sold. A flatware set from Gorham Manufacturing in Providence, Rhode Island, could go for more than $7,000 and a second flatware set from Maker's Mark Dominick & Haff could sell for $3,000 to $5,000. A George V tea set could go for between $5,000 and $8,000, along with a "part table service" set that could sell for $5,000 to $8,000.

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A 14-karat gold letter opener with a Tiffany mark could sell for $500 to $800.

Perhaps the most arcane item in the collection is a set of table bells, circa 1932, which were used by staff to call people to dinner. Now, of course, the staff can just text.

—By CNBC's Robert Frank

Watch "Secret Lives of the Super Rich" on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.|

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