Philanthropist Emily Fisher Landau’s $400 Million Art Trove Goes to Auction

The collection includes a $120 million Picasso.

(Bloomberg) — Months after her death at 102, about 120 artworks from the major New York philanthropist Emily Fisher Landau’s estate will hit the auction block at Sotheby’s in November. 

A single-owner evening sale containing roughly 30 works will be led by a 1932 Picasso estimated to sell for more than $120 million; if it achieves that price, Femme à la Montre will become the second most expensive work by the artist to sell at auction.

“She bought it in 1968,” says her daughter Candia Fisher, speaking of the Picasso. “She was so excited about it. It was absolutely the seminal piece, the one and only.” The painting hung above a fireplace on Park Avenue, Fisher continues. “It was a real prize to her. She loved, loved, loved it, and we all had the pleasure of it for all those years.” 

The evening sale will be followed by a day sale with less expensive items. In total, Fisher Landau’s collection is expected to bring in more than $400 million, making it an early and critical measure of the all-important November evening sales.

“The market is not as strong for works that come up frequently, or are similar to works that come up frequently,” says Brooke Lampley, the global head of Sotheby’s fine art division. “But what we’ve seen over and over again is that demand continues to grow for works that are truly once-in-a-lifetime acquisition opportunities.” The pieces in Fisher Landau’s collection, Lampley continues, “have not been on the market for 50 years and are truly outstanding examples by the artists—and are just outstanding works of art.”

Origins of the Collection

Fisher Landau was married to real estate developer Martin Fisher until his death, after which she married clothing manufacturer Sheldon Landau, who also predeceased her. She famously began collecting art in earnest after her jewelry was stolen; using insurance payments, she purchased works by such modernist masters as Rothko, de Kooning, Léger and Picasso. She fell under the tutelage of multiple dealers, including Pace Gallery founder Arne Glimcher, who her daughter says “lived in the same apartment house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. They met in the elevator and became instant friends.” Fisher Landau began to study, learn about and buy art in earnest. Eventually, she became one of the world’s preeminent collectors, displaying pieces from her 1,500 work collection in a 25,000-square-foot private museum in Long Island City in Queens, New York. (The museum was closed in 2017.)

In time, Fisher Landau “turned to American art when she became interested in the Whitney,” Fisher says, referring to the Whitney Museum of American Art, then located on Madison Avenue. “She had more Ed Ruschas than anybody else, other than Ruscha himself.” This made Fisher Landau, her daughter adds, “definitely ahead of the curve on that one.”

In 1987, Fisher Landau became a trustee of the Whitney, and in 2010 announced that she’d be donating 367 works of art to the museum. 

Top of the Market

Despite the lavishness of that gift, the Sotheby’s sale contains a significant number of top-tier works. Several pieces, including two of the top lots—a 1964 painting by Ruscha titled Securing the Last Letter (Boss) and an untitled piece by Mark Rothko from 1958—are dubbed “estimate on request.”

Others, though, already boast valuations that will test the very peak of the art market. A 1986 work by Jasper Johns, Flags, carries an estimate of $35 million to $45 million. Fisher Landau bought the work “directly from Johns,” Fisher says. “He had it in his home in St. Martin, and he sold it because it’s an encaustic and he felt that the humidity in St. Martin was such a threat to the work that he’d better just sell it. So my mother got to have it.”

There’s also an Andy Warhol Self Portrait, from 1986, estimated at $15 million to $20 million, a 1983 de Kooning estimated at $6 million to $8 million, and a Mark Tansey, Triumph Over Mastery II, from 1987, which carries an estimate of $8 million to $12 million. “I love it,” says Fisher. “He’s taking a house painter’s roller and painting over the Sistine Chapel, just erasing it so to speak, saying that the new order is here. I thought it’s such a genius way of expressing it.”

The Picasso, which dates from the all-important year of 1932 (the subject of an entire exhibition in 2018 at the Tate Modern in London) has the potential to be the most expensive lot to sell at auction this year. “I unhesitatingly give that estimate,” says Lampley. “This is very well supported by price precedent. If you look at the top prices for Picasso, half of the top 10 are from work from the 1930s, and three of them are for works from 1932.”

There’s a premium, she continues, for that seminal year in the artist’s oeuvre. “I know that the market remains at a peak for works from this period,” she says. “They’re in increasingly short supply: Fewer and fewer are in private hands—and the ones in private hands, people won’t sell.”

Saying Goodbye

Fisher, however, is ready to part with hers, along with a substantial chunk of her mother’s collection. (She is keeping several favorite masterpieces, however.) “I decided I wanted to be a collector in my own right,” she says. “They’ve been with me for a long time—and much as I treasure all of them, it seemed like it was time,” she continues. “I want to carry on in the tradition of supporting young emerging artists. That’s the thought, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Fisher plans to attend the sale, though she admits to mixed feelings about saying goodbye to art she’s known and loved.

“I want to tell all my friends who can afford it: Please, don’t hesitate to buy anything out of the sale,” she says. “I’d love to know that some piece is going to a home I know.”

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