Art world denizens who descended upon Sotheby’s New York salesroom last night, November 8, weren’t disappointed to ogle a handful of Jasper Johns, Mark Rothkos, and Ed Ruschas sold off for a collective $400 million. But first, they had to skip past two grime-encased Caterpillar excavators parked directly outside Sotheby’s York Avenue entrance.
“It’s not ideal,” a press aide griped.
The construction vehicles served as a reminder that the auction house will be moving its headquarters two blocks away to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Breuer building in 2025 after purchasing the property for $100 million earlier this year, and could put its 10-story office on the market.
In the meantime, there was art to unload. The contemporary art collection of longtime Whitney trustee Emily Fisher Landau, to be precise.
Landau assembled 1,200 artworks and exhibited many in a repurposed Queens factory that she called the Fisher Landau Center for Art. The museum closed in 2017 and Landau passed away in March, but not before agreeing to fork over one-third of her collection to the Whitney. Another 120 works were sent to Sotheby’s, which displayed them at their satellite offices to hype up the collection to the world’s one percent before they went up for sale in November.
An hour before the bidding began, art advisors, collectors, and potential bidders sipped on glasses of Pol Roger champagne while a video highlighting the collection played, a large Agnes Martin painting in gold leaf flashing across the screen.
“It’s a material in Martin’s hand that becomes something entirely different,” the video’s narrator said. “It’s a material of icons. A material that Emily related to in a way,” he added, without further explanation.
Guests shuffled into the main auction room where four of Landau’s most coveted paintings were already displayed on a wall behind the stage — Ed Ruscha’s “Securing the Last Letter (Boss”)” (1964), Mark Tansey’s “Triumph Over Mastery II” (1987), Jasper Johns’s “Flags” (1986), and a 1932 Picasso, “Femme a la Montre,” that Landau hung above the mantlepiece of her Park Avenue home. Sotheby’s believed it would fetch more than $120 million. The rest of the works would be revealed one by one in an alcove behind the stage that moved like a lazy Susan as about 40 anxious-looking Sotheby’s employees seated on tiered risers took calls from wealthy clients with their prospective bids.
The lazy Susan began to rotate, revealing a vibrant Joseph Albers oil painting, “Homage to the Square: Yellow Resonance” (1957). The painting was also one of the first works Landau acquired upon receiving a sizable insurance settlement after armed burglars sneaked into her Manhattan home and walked off with her jewelry collection. The crime ironically benefited the art world, as Landau instead spent her fortune on paintings and sculptures. She was introduced to Albers when she was walking by East 57th Street by chance and saw a poster for his Pace Gallery show that startled her. “From the moment I saw that Albers, I knew I loved simplicity,” she said.
Barker didn’t dawdle over this history. He started the bidding at $1 million and quickly cut it off after finding a taker at $1.5 million. Its final price, including a buyer’s premium that Sotheby’s slaps onto each sale, was $1.875 million.
Next up was a century-old Georgia O’Keeffe, “Pink Tulip (Abstraction #77 – Tulip)” (1925) that Sotheby’s predicted would sell for between $3 and $5 million dollars. Barker noted that Landau frequently visited O’Keefe’s New Mexico studio before he set the bidding at $2.5 million. A woman in the room fended off three competitors before picking up the work at $5.7 million.
Eight lots later, it was Picasso time. Barker called the work the “bedrock” of Landau’s collection and noted that 1932 was Picasso’s “Year of Wonders” as dozens of audience members and Sotheby’s staffers held up their smartphones to capture the sale.
Barker started the bidding at $95 million, which rose steadily until two phone bidders had a brief standoff at $121 million. One of them blinked and Barker violently lowered his hammer to applause. With the premium attached, the Picasso sold for $139.4 million, which was the most expensive work sold at any auction in any medium so far this year but still $36 million short of Picasso’s most expensive work to date. For that amount of loot, you could buy a 50-acre waterfront estate in Greenwich, Connecticut, or six years of service from All-Star Boston Red Sox shortstop Trevor Story. (Sotheby’s would not disclose the buyer’s identity.)
Most works sold within the price ranges that Sotheby’s specialists forecasted, but there were a few surprises. Two Robert Rauschenberg works went well below estimates, while several women artists frequently outpaced predictions. Agnes Martin’s gold leaf painting “Grey Stone II” that was expected to sell between $6 million and $8 million skyrocketed after seven minutes of bidding to $18.7 million, a new record for the artist.
What would Martin think of this, having lived an austere lifestyle in a New Mexico adobe for the latter part of her life? Perhaps it was best to finish the champagne and pre-dial an Uber.
Sotheby’s contemporary art specialist David Galperin attributed the interest to Landau’s discerning eye for quality and the rarity of Martin’s works. Only three large Martin paintings in gold leaf exist, and two others are in museums. Galberin also brushed back suggestions that the art market was slumping as Wall Street braced for a global recession.
“I don’t think it’s a soft market at all. When you sell 30 lots for $400 million, it’s not a soft market,” he said.
An hour later it was over. Most patrons filed out as Sotheby’s employees and a handful of guests absconded to the eighth floor for an afterparty. One guest who was a family friend of Landau’s for many years but declined to give his name planned to return later in the month to bid on a less expensive work but was disheartened by the spectacle.
“She would have loved the attention, but it’s sad to see the collection being broken up,” he said.