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John Whitehead's Midas touch may net his estate $40 million

John Whitehead's art collection

For major auction houses, spring is in the air—which also means priceless works will soon hit the auction block. On May 14, one of the more anticipated collections will come from the estate of the late John Whitehead, former chairman of Goldman Sachs.

Whitehead, who died in February at age 92, possessed a treasure trove of impressionist and modern art that industry watchers expect will net more than $40 million. The 90-piece collection includes rare works by Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Amedeo Modigliani and Pierre Bonnard.

Judging by the amounts some of the pieces in his collection may fetch, it's possible that Whitehead's Midas touch has survived his demise. Among the highlights from the Whitehead collection is a 1916 Modigliani canvas called "Portrait de Béatrice Hastings," that carries an estimated price tag of $7 million to $10 million.

Achim Moeller, an art advisor and the owner of a fine art gallery, worked with Whitehead on his art acquisitions for more than three decades.

"Although I was careful to avoid ever being an arbiter of John's taste, I provided him with an overall assessment of the work's value. I am grateful to John for his trust and faith in me over the past thirty-four years," Moeller told CNBC via e-mail.

"Naturally, I have always esteemed the relationship between the collector and his art advisor. For this reason alone, I regard my own with John Whitehead as an achievement, akin to noteworthy collector-advisor associations that have existed through a great part of art history," he added.

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Another highlight in the sale is a rare 1888 Claude Monet, "Paysage de matin," estimated at $6 million to $8 million.

From World War II to the heights of Wall Street

Paintings owned by the late John Whitehead are going up for auction at Christie's in New York. On display here (L) is Amedeo Modigliani's "Beatrice Hastings" oil on canvas (estimated at $7 to $10million) , and Claude Monet's "Paysage de Matin" oil on canvas (estimated between $6 and $8million).
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

Whitehead served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, where he commanded a landing craft at Omaha Beach, in the D-Day invasion of Normandy. In 1947 he graduated Harvard Business School and went to work for Goldman Sachs with a starting salary of $3,600 a year, remaining at the Wall Street giant for nearly four decades.

Read MoreJohn Whitehead dies at age 92

Over his career, culminating in senior partner and chairman, the man who was once referred to as "the moral compass of Goldman," oversaw the firm's rise to dominance in trading, IPOs and mergers.

Whitehead left the firm in 1984 to serve as deputy secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan. He later went on to serve as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, was a board member of the New York Stock Exchange and chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. after the Sept. 11 attacks.

A lion of finance and a leader in philanthropy, Whitehead proved equally adept at identifying and collecting a personal museum of fine art.

In his biography "A Life in Leadership: From D-Day to Ground Zero," Whitehead recounts his early days learning how to bid on impressionist paintings. He used his Wall Street savvy to assess the art market, picking up a Modigliani for $10,500 simply because it was "the least expensive item" in the catalog.

"This sort of appraisal was entirely new to me, nothing like anything I'd had to do at Goldman Sachs or any other aspect of my life ... but I remained enough of a financier that I took an interest in the prices, and I tried to predict what price an individual piece would go for at auction."

The collector loved his art so much he insisted on moving his valuable paintings and sculptures back and forth from his Manhattan townhouse to his various offices—so he might always enjoy looking at them wherever he was working. In the process, he earned a reputation for having a very discerning palate for artwork.

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According to Christie's chairman emeritus, Stephen S. Lash, Whitehead was "immensely modest ... [and] was also a devoted and accomplished collector who lived surrounded by the works of his favorite French impressionists."

His business acumen and artistic eye certainly paid off, as dozens of pieces in his collection multiplied in value over the decades he owned them.

This landscape last sold at Sotheby's in 1985 for $418,000. Christie's, a veteran in art sales, has sold numerous paintings at high prices. The auction house holds the world auction record for a work by Monet at $80.4 million, and sold more than $1 billion worth of impressionist art in 2014 alone.

As for potential buyers, Conor Jordan, deputy chairman, impressionist and modern art at Christie's, told CNBC's "Power Lunch" Thursday "We have already had interest from a number of people who are collectors, who knew John Whitehead well. But we are also seeing interest from other regions in the world. Of course Europe, even Asia, where the Whitehead name has great resonance."

The late John C. Whitehead
Photo: Peter Vidor | Christie's Images LTC. 2015