It may still be summer, but the major auction houses already have their sights on November’s biannual evening sales. The biggest estate in play at the moment is that of longtime Whitney trustee and art collector Emily Fisher Landau.
Christie’s and Sotheby’s are going head-to-head for the artworks amassed by Fisher Landau, who died this past March at age 102, according to numerous dealers and advisors with knowledge of the negotiations. (She is survived by her daughter, Candia, who is also a collector and philanthropist.) The collection could rake in between $375 million and $500 million, several dealers told ARTnews, with the star being Picasso’s Femme à la montre (Woman with a Watch), a painting nearly five feet tall from 1932, considered by many to have been a pivotal year in the Spanish painter’s practice. In 2018, the Tate Modern even held an exhibition centered on Picasso’s work that year. In 1932 he also painted Nu au plateau de sculpteur (Nude, Green Leaves and Bust), which sold for $106 million at Christie’s New York in 2010, at the time a record for any work sold at auction. Femme à la montre could end up beating the current record for Picasso: $179 million for his 1955 harem scene, Les Femmes d’Alger (Version “O”), at Christie’s New York in 2015.
A painting like the Fisher Landau Picasso “will hopefully demonstrate that the market has not come down” over the past few months, dealer Brett Gorvy told ARTnews. Gorvy was cohead of Christie’s contemporary art department when both Nude, Green Leaves and Bust and Femmes d’Alger sold (he ended up in a bidding war on the latter artwork with fellow Christie’s specialist Loic Gouzer). Meanwhile, an art adviser who asked to remain anonymous told ARTnews that the Picasso could reinvigorate the market after wobbly sales in May, when the Gerald Fineberg collection, up for sale at Christie’s New York, didn’t quite reach expectations and featured lowered reserve prices.
Despite the lackluster Fineberg results, Christie’s has something going for it in the battle for the Fisher Landau collection: the house holds the current auction records for Picasso and Ed Ruscha. In 2019 Christie’s sold a 1964 Ruscha text painting, Hurting the Word Radio #2, for $52.5 million. The Fisher Landau collection has a similar text painting from the same year, Securing the Last Letter, which shows the word “BOSS” in all caps, with a vise gripping the final S.
Sotheby’s, meanwhile, holds the record for Cy Twombly, $70.5 million for a 1968 chalkboard painting—but only by a smidge: Christie’s sold a 1970 chalkboard work in 2014 for $69.6 million. The Fisher Landau holdings contain at least one stellar Twombly, an 8-foot-wide painting that the artist started in 1964 and revised in 1984.
Fisher Landau started collecting art in the early 1970s, after a well-publicized burglary of her jewelry collection brought a hefty insurance payout. She went on to amass some 1,500 works, including pieces by Mark Rothko, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Andy Warhol, who painted her portrait. Selections from the collection were shown last year at the Norton Museum in Palm Beach, where Fisher Landau had a home. The Picasso, which had been on loan to Miami’s Perez Art Museum in 2018, hung front and center.
In 1991 the collector opened the Fisher Landau Center for Art in a 25,000-square-foot former parachute factory in Long Island City, Queens. It served as a home for her collection and a museum that was open to the public. The center closed to the public in November 2017.
Fisher Landau donated 367 works to the Whitney Museum in 2010, where for years she had been a trustee. The gift was estimated to be worth between $50 million and $75 million, and features pivotal names in American art including Jasper Johns, William Eggleston, and Ruscha. The gift also gave a glimpse into the depth at which Fisher Landau collected: there were 14 works by Robert Rauschenberg from between 1950 and 1990, four by James Rosenquist, including the mural-size House of Fire II (1982), and an impressive 44 works by Johns.