Legendary American art patron Emily Fisher Landau's US$400m collection heads to Sotheby's New York

“Never stop learning. Never stop looking. Art is the greatest teacher,” Emily Fisher Landau once stated.

An art lover at heart, the longtime Whitney trustee is considered one of the greatest American art patrons and collectors of recent times, with a kaleidoscopic collection of Modern and Contemporary art that featured some of the 20th century’s most important artists. Having collected in depth, she was also known to have shown steadfast support to the artists behind the art and museums institutionally.

This New York marquee season, her massive art collection has arrived at Sotheby’s, with two dedicated auctions on 8 and 9 November. The evening sale will be led by Picasso's 1932 portrait of his golden muse, Femme à la montrewhich could sell for US$120 million. Following that are works by post-war Pop icons, including Ed Ruscha's iconic text painting, Jasper Johns' instantly recognizable Flag canvas, and Andy Warhol's Self-Portrait

Picasso's Femme à la montre held pride of place in Emily Fisher Landau's apartment

The late Emily Fisher Landau was one of the greatest patrons of the 20th century

Born in 1920, Emily Fisher Landau had been a passionate art lover since childhood. But as the Second World War broke out, her father, an estate developer, sent her to a secretarial school instead, hoping she could secure a stable job during the social upheaval.

Despite never taking an art history class, she began collecting as a hobby in the 1960s, until a life-changing event brought her to becoming a singular collector. 

On a spring afternoon in 1969, while she was out for lunch, a group of armed bandits burgled her apartment on the Upper East Side – a moment Mrs. Fisher Landau later described as both devastating and one of the best things that ever happened to her. 

Emily Fisher Landau in the 1970s

She collected more than one Calder mobile; Red Comber in the photo will go under the hammer with an estimate between US$1.5 and 2 million

For birthdays, anniversaries and holidays over the years, her second husband, Martin Fisher, also a real estate mogul, had gifted her an extravagant collection of fine parures – which included a 39-carat blue-white diamond solitaire. Every single piece but her wedding band was stolen out of her safe.

With the proceeds from the insurance settlement for the theft, she was allowed to use the large sum to buy what she really wanted: canvas treasures. Before the jewellery heist, her first major purchase was an Alexander Calder mobile, which she bought in 1968 and "carried like a Christmas tree" on the crosstown bus all on her own. 

Now having her first pot of gold, she went on to acquire more pieces by big names such as Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, and Paul Klee. Major galleries in New York, like the Pace Gallery and the Leo Castelli Gallery in Manhattan, would become key sources for her growing collection.

Lot 14 | Andy Warhol (1926-1987) | Self-Portrait (1986), 203.2 x 203.2 cm | Estimate: US$15 - 20 million

Lot 31 | Andy Warhol (1926-1987) | Emily Fisher Landau (1982), 101.9 x 101.9 cm | Estimate: US$500,000 - 700,000

In later years, she came to know and patronize many of the artists of her time directly – such artists include American Pop titans like Ed Ruscha, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol, who twice painted her portrait. 

Originally trained as a commercial illustrator, Ruscha broke onto the art stage in the early 1960s with his revolutionary text paintings. Merging Pop Art, Conceptualism and a distinct West Coast sensibility, these works, which are monochrome canvases adorned with simple words inspired by advertising billboards, spoke to America's rising tides of prosperity and consumerism. By transforming ordinary language into arresting visual statements, he elevated the subject matter into fine art, influencing generations of artists.

Perhaps linked to her dyslexia, Emily Fisher Landau developed an affinity for word paintings, and bought Ruscha extensively. They became friends when the artist was rather young. 

Testimony to her discerning eye, the sister painting of Ruscha's Securing the Last Letter (Boss) (1964) – which she acquired in 1988 and will be offered in the evening sale – is collected by the Museum Brandhorst in Munich, while another piece in the seven-work series, Hurting the Word Radio #2, set the artist's auction record at US$52.4 million in 2019. 

Emily Fisher Landau and Ed Ruscha at the artist's studio

Ed Ruscha's Securing the Last Letter (Boss) was hung in Emily Fisher Landau's apartment

Lot 13 | Ed Ruscha | Securing the Last Letter (Boss) (1964), 149.9 x 140 cm | Estimate: US$35 - 45 million

In the mid-1980s, she became actively involved with leading art institutions: she sat on committees at the Museum of Modern Art and on the boards of the Metropolitan Opera and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in New Mexico.

But among all the institutions she supported, it was the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York that she engaged the most deeply. She joined the museum board in 1989, and not long afterwards, she established an endowment to fund the Whitney Biennial, knowing that it was a cornerstone of the museum’s objective to present work by risk-taking contemporary artists, many of whom were not yet recognized.

In 2010, she gifted 367 works of art worth a total of US$50 to 70 million to the Whitney. These artworks, including seminal works by key figures in American art, are showcased on the fourth floor of the museum, which was named in honour of her. 

Lot 6 | Jasper Johns | Flags (1986)65 x 84.1 cm | Estimate: US$35 - 45 million

Even as she dedicated herself to the Whitney, she opened the Fisher Landau Center for Art, housed in a 25,000-square-foot former parachute-harness factory in Long Island City. Initially, Mrs. Fisher Landau planned to use the building to store her 1,500-work collection.

Soon enough, she thought it would make a wonderful exhibition and study space. From 1991 to 2017, the Center presented – free of charge to the public – insightful exhibitions of important works. 

Emily Fisher Landau passed away at age 102 this past March. After her death, Christie's and Sotheby's both vied to secure her massive estate – and the latter eventually won the consignment.

Notably, Sotheby's has backed every single lot in the evening sale with an in-house guarantee, meaning the seller will receive a minimum sale price from the auction house regardless of the sale's outcome. 

Other highlight lots from the sale:

Lot 20 | Mark Rothko (1903-1970) | Untitled, Oil on canvas
Executed in 1958
233.4 x 176.5 cm

  • Estate of the artist
  • The Pace Gallery, New York 
  • Acquired from the above in April 1981 by the present owner

Estimate: US$30,000,000 - 40,000,000

Lot 17 | Cy Twombly (1928-2011) | Untitled, Oil-based house paint and wax crayon on canvas
Executed in 1968
172.4 x 218.4 cm

  • Robert Rauschenberg, New York
  • Acquired from the above in January 1986 by the present owner

Estimate: US$20,000,000 - 30,000,000

Lot 4 | Mark Tansey | Triumph Over Mastery II, Oil on canvas
Executed in 1987
246.7 x 173 cm

  • Curt Marcus Gallery, New York
  • Acquired from the above in October 1987 by the present owner 

Estimate: US$8,000,000 - 12,000,000

Lot 2 | Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) | Pink Tulip (Abstraction - #77 Tulip), Oil on canvas
Executed in 1925
81.3 x 30.5 cm

  • The artist
  • Acquired from the above in June 1985 by the present owner

Estimate: US$3,000,000 - 5,000,000

Auction Details: 

Auction House: Sotheby's New York
Sale: The Emily Fisher Landau Collection: An Era Defined | Evening Auction
Date and Time: 8 November 2023 | 6:00 pm (New York Local Time)
Number of Lots: 31