Who is Emily Fisher Landau? The Matriarch Collector Behind Sotheby's Next Blockbuster Auction

This photograph shows Emily Fisher Landau in front of a series of portraits done of her by Andy Warhol.Image © Sotheby's / Emily Fisher Landau in front of a portrait done of her by Andy Warhol
Joe Syer

Joe Syer, Co-Founder & Specialist[email protected]

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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.

“She was a great example of the premier collectors in history who collect not just for themselves but for posterity.”
Leonard Lauder, Chairman Emeritus of The Whitney Museum

Emily Fisher Landau's Life: The Ultimate Art Collector

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.

“I’ve never collected something because it was fashionable. It was always about what I instinctively liked.”
Emily Fisher Landau
A portrait of Emily Fisher Landau by Andy Warhol. It shows the art patron depicted in Warhol's characteristically graphic style against a white background.Image © Sotheby's / Emily Fisher Landau © Andy Warhol 1982

Fisher Landau as Warhol's Muse and Patron

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.

“My favourite artist is probably Andy Warhol. What I recognised in him – or what I felt – was the influence he had on other artists.”
Emily Fisher Landau
This painting by Mark Tansey shows a shirtless man hanging onto a ladder and straining to paint a wall behind him white. The work is done in tones of red and cream.Image © Sotheby's / Triumph Over Mastery II (detail) © Mark Tansey 1987

Auction Highlights

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.

“She had the temperament to move forward with the zeitgeist. She became well known as a major collector, and I think her tastes encouraged that moment through the ’80s and ’90s. Others followed.”
Amy Cappellazzo, New York art adviser
This painting by Pablo Picasso shows a deconstructed female figure wearing a watch. The colour palette is composed mostly of primary colours.Image © Sotheby's / Femme À La Montre © Pablo Picasso 1932

Pablo Picasso’s Femme À La Montre (1932)

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.”

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An image of the work Flags by Jasper Johns, showing two flags of the United States, hanging downwards side by side.Image © Sotheby's / Flags © Jasper Johns 1986

Jasper Johns' Flags (1986)

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.

An image of a work by Ed Ruscha, that shows the word BOSS in all orange capitals against a dark blue background. A graphic-looking industrial C-clamp pinches the final S.Image © Sotheby's / Securing The Last Letter (Boss) © Ed Ruscha 1964

Ed Ruscha's Securing The Last Letter (Boss) (1964)

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.

A photograph of Emily Fisher Landau posing in front of a 1958 Untitled work by Mark Rothko. She is shown wearing a navy blue dress.Image © Sotheby's / Emily Fisher Landau posing in front of a work by Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko's Untitled (1958)

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 Untitled work by Cy Twombly shows clusters of round white scribbles against a grey background.Image © Sotheby's / Untitled © Cy Twombly 1968

Cy Twombly's Untitled (1968)

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.

An image of a self-portrait by Andy Warhol. A monochrome photograph of the artist is overlaid with a camouflage pattern done in red, blue and peach.Image © Sotheby's / Self-Portrait © Andy Warhol 1986

Andy Warhol's Self Portrait (1986)

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 work by Agnes Martin demonstrates her signature grid motif, done in grey against a cream background.Image © Sotheby's / Grey Stone II © Agnes Martin 1961

Agnes Martin's Grey Stone II (1961)

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.

A close-up abstracted painting of a tulip by Georgia O'Keeffe, done in tones of pink and green.Image © Sotheby's / Pink Tulip (Abstraction - #77 Tulip) © Georgia O'Keeffe 1925

Georgia O'Keeffe's Pink Tulip (Abstraction - #77 Tulip) (1925)

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.

An image of a work by Robert Indiana. It consists of Four Sixes done in green within a red circle. The circles are shown rotating within the square composition, against a blue background.Image © Sotheby's / Four Sixes © Robert Indiana 1964

Robert Indiana's Four Sixes (1964-65)

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.

Two men are shown hanging up Picasso's work on a white wall.Image © Sotheby's / Installation View of the Emily Fisher Landau Collection

Fisher Landau's Legacy

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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