2023 has undeniably been an incredible year for blockbuster auctions. From the controversial Heidi Horten auction at Christie’s in May to the record-breaking Freddie Mercury auction at Sotheby’s in September, it is estimated that auction house giants made over $5.8 billion in sales during the first half of the year alone. The next great auction – that of the collection of art patron Emily Fisher Landau – will be held on the 8th and 9th of November in New York, in what promises to be an exciting few days for art enthusiasts.
The collection is a roll call of 20th century artistic giants, featuring works from artists including Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Georgia O'Keeffe Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly and Ed Ruscha. The collection is expected to fetch up to $500 million.
Emily Fisher Landau was born on August 23rd, 1920 in New York state. Her second husband was Martin Fisher, a real estate developer who used to give Emily jewellery parures for birthdays and anniversaries. On a spring afternoon in 1969, armed burglars disguised as air conditioning repairmen robbed her from all the gifts. In an interview, she said she “was devastated… [but] I decided [she] didn’t want the jewellery anymore.” Thanks to the insurance settlement she received, she now had immediate funds to start her own collection. In another interview, she stated that “what [she] really wanted to buy was paintings, so probably the theft was one of the best things that ever happened to [her].”
The ultimate proof that a discerning eye for art has no need for a degree, Fisher Landau already had purchased a metre-tall Alexander Calder mobile in 1968 – before the heist ever happened. However, her collecting spirit increased significantly in the 1970s, and she credited artist Josef Albers with kickstarting her interest. In just a few years, she purchased works by Matisse, Mondrian, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and Paul Klee. Following the death of her second husband in 1976 she paused the enterprise until the early 1980s, when she met and hired designer Bill Katz to redecorate her Park Avenue apartment. She began redeveloping her collection, with a particular focus on contemporary works, and mingled with the likes of Warhol and Rauschenberg.
By the mid-1980s, Fisher Landau had become a trustee and long term benefactor at the Whitney Museum of American Art – she remained in the position for several decades, and the museum’s fourth floor is now named after her. In May 2010, she made a historic gift to the institution, consisting of 367 by names such as Warhol, Johns, Rauschenberg, Ruscha and Agnes Martin. Beyond the Whitney, she sat on the board of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the Metropolitan Opera and had opened the Fisher Landau Center, which displayed much of her collection between 1991 and 2017.
In her later years, Fisher Landau struggled with Alzheimer’s disease and passed away at the age of 102 on March 27th, 2023.
Fisher Landau once stated Warhol was her favourite artist. She collected many works from the artist throughout her life, and several are available for purchase on the Evening and Day Sales. Notable amongst these are a version of St. George And The Dragon (After Paolo Uccello), estimated between $450,000-$650,000, and sketches for the iconic Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s Soup series. She also owned a four-part painting of Warhol’s The Shadow, executed in 1981 and purchased by the collector in February 2000.
By the early 1980s, Fisher Landau was such a fixture in the New York art scene that she had her likeness portrayed more than once by the king of Pop Art himself. The first portrait, done in 1982, is up for sale at Sotheby’s: done in Warhol's signature silkscreen technique, it shows the art patron gazing inquisitively at the viewer, with a slight blue eyeshadow reminiscent of the archetypal Marilyns. This work stayed in the collection of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts until 2003, when it was purchased by Fisher Landau herself. It is estimated to sell for $500,000-$700,000 at auction.
Two years after her first portrait by Warhol, in 1984, Warhol would paint her again – this time, for a work for the collection of The Whitney Museum. The fact that Fisher Landau was painted by Warhol is indicative of her high-profile during her life, propelling her to the high levels of notability of many other celebrities and socialites of the time.
The auction spans nearly a century of the world’s greatest artists, encompassing mediums such as sculptures, paintings and prints. From the traditional to the avant-garde, Fisher Landau’s insightful taste for collecting is on display at every turn.
Undoubtedly, the star lot of the sale is Picasso’s Femme À La Montre, which was painted in 1932 – considered by many experts to be the painter’s 'annus mirabilis', a year of such special productivity that the Tate dedicated an entire exhibition to it. The work was one of Fisher Landau’s first purchases and took pride of place in her collection, having hung over the mantle of her New York City home for over five decades. Estimated to sell for over $120 million, the work has been praised by Sotheby’s expert Julian Dawes for being “not just a stand-out work from a stand-out year, it is a definitive work in the story of Western art.”
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Fisher Landau collection is its impeccable provenance and artistic discernment. This is perfectly evidenced in the purchase of Johns’ iconic Flags painting directly from primary dealer Leo Castelli Gallery in August 1987, the year after the work’s execution. One of Johns’ most recognisable motifs – its variations hang in illustrious collections such as that of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan and the Whitney Museum in New York – the painting is estimated to fetch between $35 and $45 million on November 8th.
Fisher Landau was a massive fan of Ruscha, whom she first met at the beginning of his career. Soon, she had amassed the biggest collection of the Ruschas in the world, outside of the artist himself. Securing The Last Letter (Boss) exemplifies the artist’s characteristic approach to text-based paintings, reflecting on American culture with its bold lettering and stark presentation. The word "BOSS" set against a flat background invites interpretations around themes of authority and commercialism, and invites to ponder on Fisher Landau’s own sense of humour when it came to collecting. The work is expected to fetch between $35-45 million at auction.
Another gem in Fisher Landau’s collection was this work by Rothko, which is directly related to Section Four of the mural series now held in the collection of the Tate in London. Out of the thirty paintings created in this series, it is one of only four that remains in private hands – speaking once again of Fisher Landau’s acumen in collecting. Acquired by her from Pace Gallery in 1981, the work’s impeccable provenance and historical significance means it is estimated to sell between $30-40 million at the Evening auction.
This is an exemplary work from Twombly’s Blackboard painting series, executed between 1967 and 1971. In a testament to Fisher Landau’s connection to the art world, Untitled was previously in the collection of artist Robert Rauschenberg before being acquired in 1986. It now stands as evidence to her patronage of two artists that were hugely significant in 20th century art. It is expected to sell between $20-30 million.
This work marks one of Warhol’s final self portraits before his unexpected death only months later, in February 1987. As such, it stands as his final monumental act of expression, encapsulating the artist's ultimate contemplation on death, identity and self-representation. This work graces the collection of many illustrious institutions, including the Tate, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Fisher Landau acquired the work in July 1987, only months after Warhol’s passing. It is estimated between $15-20 million.
This early work by Martin is notable for being only one of five that has the inclusion of gold leaf as a medium. The artist painstakingly rendered the small grid in pencil, oil and gold – and this work is the largest of its kind to remain in private hands. Fisher Landau purchased this work in 1986, and it is expected to fetch between $6-8 million on the Evening sale.
One of the oldest works in the collection, this painting by O’Keeffe was acquired in 1985 by Fisher Landau directly from the artist, in one of her many visits as a long standing supporter of her work. It is a work that is quintessentially in the style of O’Keeffe, all abstraction and pastels, and is estimated at $3-5 million.
This work is characteristic of Indiana’s signature style, full of primary colours and a heavily graphic aesthetic. The work has been featured in several retrospective exhibitions, a testament to its importance within Indiana’s oeuvre at large. Like many of the items at auction, this work has impeccable provenance: it was gifted directly from the artist to Billy Katz, later Fisher Landau’s collaborator; she purchased it from Katz in 1990. It is estimated between $600,000-800,000.
There is much that can be said about Fisher Landau’s legacy, only part of which is on display at the November auction. As noted by Brooke Lampley, Global Chairman and Head of Global Fine Art at Sotheby’s, “this is an occasion to reflect on how essential female patrons have been to the history of 20th century art in America.” It is also a chance to reflect on the fact that art collecting is at its best when done according to the buyer’s own taste, irrespective of changing fashions and tastes. Fisher Landau famously never took a single art history class, yet her impeccable taste was innate; she will be remembered as a hugely important arts patron, muse and world-class collector.
Sotheby’s will also, no doubt, be hoping that the sale brings in encouraging results – especially after a slight slump in the market during the first half of 2023. It remains to be seen whether the results of November 8th-9th will match 2022’s record-breaking year.
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