This week, Sotheby’s achieved its second largest sale of the year – that of the collection of legendary art patron Emily Fisher Landau. It marked the most valuable sale devoted to a female collector ever staged, and followed some underwhelming sales from single-owner collections in the Spring. Many in the art world were holding their breath awaiting the results and the auction was seen as largely indicative of a more sombre art market, especially as the threat of a new war in the Middle East looms large. Drew Watson, head of art services for Bank of America, stated that “we are experiencing a recalibration in the market after the comeback that we saw in 2021 reached its peak last fall.” Nevertheless, the auction performed well, with a 98.2% sales rate and delivering a hammer total of $366,188,800 -- mostly on the first night.
The evening sale, led by Picasso, delivered a hammer total of $351.7m, or $406.4m with fees, which was within the pre-sale estimate. This is no small feat, as 9 of the 31 lots on offer were bought for $10m or more – however, Sotheby’s had guaranteed a minimum price for every one of the items on offer, ensuring a white-glove sale irrespective of the level of bidding. Furthermore, by the time they were up for auction, third-party guarantees had been secured for 25 of the 31 pieces. Nevertheless, the auction also set two new artists' records: for Agnes Martin and Mark Tansey. It was a moderately successful evening, with 64% of the works selling within estimate, 25% below estimate and 8% – only two works – selling above estimate. Both works sold above estimate were by women artists: Martin and Georgia O'Keefe.
The auction started off strong, with the work Homage to the Square: Yellow Resonance by Josef Albers. Fisher Landau once credited the artist for beginning her passion for collecting: From the moment I saw that Albers, I knew I loved simplicity. Albers was my beginning point as a collector.” The work sold within the lower estimate, with a hammer price of $1.5 million.
Mark Tansey’s work had been estimated between $8-12 million, and Triumph Over Mastery sold for $10 million. This set a new record for the artist, whose previous record had been Source of the Loue in 2018, with a hammer price of $6.4 million. Having previously been exhibited in several monumental institutions such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the work was acquired by Fisher Landau shortly after its completion, illustrating her collecting acumen.
This work was Johns’ first flag to appear at auction in almost a decade, and it has impeccable provenance: Fisher Landau purchased it directly from primary dealer Leo Castelli Gallery in August 1987, the year after the work’s execution. It is one of Johns’ most recognisable motifs, and its variations hang in collections such as that of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan and the Whitney Museum in New York. It had been estimated to fetch between $35-45 million and eventually sold for $37 million after less than two minutes of bidding.
The first work to sell for above estimate on the sale, 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 was the largest of its kind to remain in private hands. Fisher Landau purchased this work in 1986, and it was estimated to sell for $6-8 million, but it created a new record for the artist with its hammer price of $16 million – double its high estimate. The previous record had also been set at Sotheby's, with a $15.2 million hammer price, in 2021.
This work was undoubtedly the star lot of the sale. Picasso’s Femme À La Montre was painted in 1932, considered by many experts to be a year of such special productivity for the artist 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 for over 50 years, hanging over the mantle of her New York City home. It was the first time the work had even come to auction, since Fisher Landau purchased it directly from Pace Gallery. Estimated to sell for over $120 million, the hammer price for the work was $121 million – making it the second most expensive Picasso ever sold after Femmes D’Algers (Version O), which had a hammer price of $160 million when it came to auction in 2015.
Not even the most expensive American painter in history was immune to the evening’s market fluctuations. His hugely important Self-Portrait, one of the last done before his unexpected death in February 1987, graces the collection of many 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 sold for $16 million – on the lower end of its $15-20 million estimate.
This work by Rauschenberg is undeniably important: it illustrates his experimental methods of collage and was used as a cover for his manifesto Random Order. However, bidders were not too impressed, and it ended up being one of the biggest disappointments of the night. Estimated between $8-12 million, it sold for half its low estimate, with a hammer price of $4 million.
An undeniably important work in the history of art, this was another gem in Fisher Landau’s collection. This work by Rothko 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 for it, it is one of only four that remains in private hands – which seemed to justify its estimate of $30-40 million on the Evening auction. However, it generated very few bids and sold for $19 million – not enough to scrape its low estimate.
The evening’s second and final sale above estimates was Georgia O’Keefe’s Dry Waterfall. Fisher Landau purchased the work directly from the artist in 1985, and as such it has never come to the secondary market before. Estimated between $1.2-1.8 million, the work sold for $2 million last night – perhaps signalling that the art world is finally ready for more female artists to come to the forefront of auctions and collections.
Perhaps attracted by the more accessible prices, bidders flocked to the second day of the Fisher Landau collection auction. Unlike the previous night, this time most artworks sold for above the high estimate: 41% of the works sold for above, 32% were within estimate and only 23% below. Also unlike the previous night, two lots went unsold in this auction. The hammer sales total for the day was $14,488,800.
Warhol made an appearance once again, this time with a series of sketches and uniques. Fisher Landau's unique version of the Details Of Renaissance Paintings (Paolo Uccello, St. George And The Dragon, 1460) (F. & S. II.326) sold for $350,000, not hitting its $450-650,000 estimates.
His drawings of the iconic Marilyn and Campbell's Soup fared much better, however, and both sold for more than estimated. The drawing of Marilyn was estimated at $80-120,000, but had a hammer price of $165,000. The drawing of a tin of Campbell's Soup was estimated at the same price as Marilyn, but sold for slightly more, with a hammer price of $170,000.
On this day, many of the artworks that sold for above their estimate were by lesser known, non-blue chip artists. That is not to say that the usual suspects did not perform well – Picasso, Robert Longo, Francesco Clemente and Matisse all had their work sold above estimate – but the biggest discrepancies from estimate were from slightly more obscure names. This is perhaps the best indicator that bidders have been following the advice of Fisher Landau herself, since she “never collected something because it was fashionable. It was always about what [she] instinctively liked.”
The final item at auction was Markus Raetz's Metamorphose II, which ensured the day ended on a strong note: estimated at $60-80,000, it had a hammer price of $170,000 -- over twice its high estimate.
While the auction was not as record-breaking as Freddie Mercury’s, it still performed incredibly well for a market that is increasingly conserving its resources. Since 2022, when sanctions brought after the Ukrainian invasion prevented many collectors from bidding, the market has deliberately slowed down. Many Asian collectors have also retreated, some say due to China’s crumbling property market. To counteract this, auction houses have increasingly leaned into the luxury goods market, including furniture, bags and cars.
While the total sales figure for the Fisher Landau collection is one of the highest-ever achieved for a single owner, it hardly compares to the Paul G. Allen collection sale last year. Nevertheless, the sale speaks to the fact that buyers are increasingly demanding diversity, both in gender, race and notoriety. While we are seeing more and more buyers relocating their funds into tangible assets, it is clear that they are also doing it based on personal taste and affinity – the best possible way to start or add to a collection. It remains to be seen whether the slight market recorrection will last.
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