Picasso's portrait of his golden muse sells for US$139m in New York, the artist's second highest at auction

A 1932 Picasso portrait of his young mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, Femme à la montre, sold for US$139.3 million at Sotheby's New York, making it the second-most expensive work by the artist to ever sell at auction, as well as the most valuable work sold at auction this year so far. 

The vibrant canvas featuring his golden muse with a watch was offered at the highly anticipated evening sale dedicated to Emily Fisher Landau's collection, who is considered one of the greatest American art patrons and collectors of recent times. The 31-lot auction eventually garnered US$406.4 million, becoming the most valuable sale devoted to a female collector in auction history. 

Notably, Sotheby's has backed every single work in the sale with an in-house guarantee, meaning it was bound to be a white-glove sale regardless of the bidding activity. By the time the 31 lots hit the auction block, 25 of them were further secured with a third-party guarantee. 

Auctioneer Oliver Barker led the full-house event

Lot 10 | Pablo Picasso | Femme à la montre, Oil on canvas
Executed on 17 August 1932
130 x 97 cm

  • Galerie Beyeler, Basel (acquired directly from the artist in 1966)
  • Pace Gallery, New York (acquired from the above in 1968)
  • Acquired from the above in November 1968 by the present owner

Estimate upon request (Expected to fetch in excess of US$120 million)
Hammer Price: US$121,000,000
Sold: US$139,363,500

Femme à la montre had remained in the collection of Emily Fisher Landau since she acquired the work in 1968 in Pace Gallery. For the last fifty-five years, the work held pride of place above the mantle in her apartment. 

Heading to the auction block with an irrevocable bid, the piece attracted three telephone bidders as the auctioneer opened it at US$95 million. They were represented respectively by Grégoire Billault, Chairman of Contemporary Art in New York; Wendy Lin, Chairman in Asia; and Brooke Lampley, Global Chairman and Head of Global Fine Art. 

All three bidders, however, remained conservative and calm; and after just four bids, the lot was hammered at US$121 million, selling to Lampley's client with paddle number 36 for a final price with fees of US$139.4 million.

The sale marked the second-highest price achieved for a work by Pablo Picasso, following the US$179.4 million paid for Les Femmes d'Alger (Version O) at Christie's New York in 2015. The buyer of that work was alleged to be Hamad bin Jassim, former Prime Minister of Qatar. 

Brooke Lampley won the lot for her client with paddle number 36

Les Femmes d'Alger (Version O) sold for US$179.4 million in 2015, setting Picasso's auction record

At Christmas in 1931, Pablo Picasso, who had just turned 50, was boxed into an unbearable marriage; at work, he faced critiques that questioned his ability to create radical new work. 

As the new year rang in, the Father of Cubism had become restless in both his relationship and his art, working at a feverish pace, and ceaselessly inspired by his new muse’s presence — it was also the year his secret affair with his lover and golden muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter, came to light. 

That ushered in Picasso's 'year of wonders', a year so important that a whole Tate exhibition in 2018 was dedicated to his 1932 paintings. At auctions, paintings from this year are highly sought-after and can command sky-high prices, such as the US$103 million Femme assise près d'une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse) sold in 2021.

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

Femme assise près d'une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse) sold for US$103 million in 2021

Though Picasso was widely regarded as one of the greatest painters of the day, his friend and closest artistic rival Henri Matisse had garnered wide acclaim in the 1920s for his ornate Odalisques, concubines in harems; while Picasso's own work, which wavered between latent Cubist and Neoclassical idioms, was at times critically sidelined. 

Their intense rivalry peaked in 1931, when the sweeping Matisse retrospectives, first at Galeries Georges Petit, and later that year at New York's Museum of Modern Art proved a sort of gauntlet thrown down for Picasso. Some critics openly questioned whether he was an artist of the past, rather than the future.  

All this tension was brought into focus by his first major retrospective at Galeries Georges Petit in June 1932. In the preceding months Picasso channelled his energies into ambitious paintings intended to silence his detractors. And the show turned out to be a major success, opening to a rapt and abundant audience, the sort of blockbuster-like crowds that were unheard of at the time. 

Pablo Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter

That year, while Picasso had grown restless in his work, so had his relationship and marriage with Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova.

In 1927, Picasso met the seventeen-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter outside the Galeries Lafeyette – the chance encounter which set in motion one of the greatest lover affairs of the master's life. Taken at once with the young woman's golden beauty, Picasso approached Marie-Thérèse, stating "I am Picasso! You and I are going to do great things together."

Due to Picasso's marriage and Marie-Thérèse's age, the couple's relationship, however, was kept a well-guarded secret for many years, hidden even from Picasso's innermost circle of friends. But the covertness of the affair only intensified Picasso's obsession with her, and many of his pictures, with his Surreal biomorphic interpretations and coded images, allude to their secret interludes. 

It was until 1932, in that blockbuster retrospective, that their secret affair came to public light. No longer able to repress the creative impulse that his lover inspired, he selected many of the recent large-scale portraits of Marie-Thérèse to be included in the show. With her sensuous curves, golden hair and Grecian features clearly different from the features of Olga, it was evident that a new presence and muse had entered the artist's life and art. 

Henri Matisse | Femme à la montre (1927) | The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Back in Boisgeloup after the opening of his retrospective in Paris, Picasso enjoyed a calmer environment free of pre-exhibition stresses and time constraints. Consequently, the present work, executed in August of that year, displays a heightened level of detail and pictorial complexity.

Rendered in volumetric curves and set against geometric delineations of her dress and chair, Marie-Thérèse conveys a sense of poise and assuredness. Her gaze is directed at the viewer, the illuminated half of her visage mirrored and joined by the shaded half in the characteristic implication of Picasso’s own presence. 

Testimony to his ability to play with colours, the crisply articulated lines and geometric forms of the armchair and pattered dress were carefully offset by contrasting colours, yet bringing in saturated colour harmonies.

The green checked blouse, in particular, was a direct reference to the patterned tapestries and garments found within Matisse's canvases from the period, like his 1927 Femme à l’eveil, which was included in The Museum of Modern Art's 1931 retrospective on Matisse. 

The work depicts Marie-Thérèse in a green checked blouse and a watch

Pablo Picasso | Olga Khokglova (1917) | Private Collection

Perhaps most important of all, he placed a wristwatch on the wrist of Marie-Thérèse – the motif which only appears in three portraits of his entire oeuvre: a 1917 portrait of Olga, the present work, and another portrait of Marie-Thérèse in 1936. 

A nod to contemporary times, wristwatches held a special significance in Picasso's heart, himself a passionate collector of watches.

Here, Marie-Thérèse metaphorically borrows the timepiece from Olga, just as she has borrowed Picasso’s affections. The prominence of the watch at the centre of Marie-Thérèse’s lap further suggests the latent erotic connection of the object.

Emily Fisher Landau

Born in 1920, Emily Fisher Landau had been a passionate art lover since childhood. 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, a group of armed bandits burgled her apartment on the Upper East Side. Over the years, her second husband, Martin Fisher, also a real estate mogul, had gifted her an extravagant collection of fine jewelry for birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. Every piece but her wedding band was stolen from 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.

Emily Fisher Landau in the 1970s

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 established an endowment to fund the Whitney Biennial, presenting work by risk-taking contemporary artists.

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.

She collected more than one Calder mobile; Red Comber in the photo sold for US$1.9 million

Even as she dedicated herself to the Whitney, she opened the Fisher Landau Center for Art in Long Island City. 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.

Demonstrating strong confidence in Emily Fisher Landau's collection, Sotheby's had secured the entire auction with an in-house guarantee ahead of the sale.

When a lot with this kind of guarantee doesn't sell, the house usually buys it in; if it does sell, for less than the guaranteed amount, the auction house will pay the seller the difference between the hammer price and the guaranteed price.
Overall, nine works in total – including the Picasso – achieved prices above US$10 million, and records were set for two artists, Agnes Martin and Mark Tansey.

The former's Grey Stone II (1961) was pursued by eight bidders and fetched US$18.7 million, more than doubling its US$8 million high estimate, while the latter's Triumph Over Mastery II (1987) sold for US$11.8 million after a prolonged bidding battle between four bidders.

Asian buyers were also active in the sale, having snapped up pieces such as Cy Twombly's Untitled (1968), Mark Rothko's Untitled (1958), and Andy Warhol's Self-Portrait (1986). 

Lot 6 | Jasper Johns | Flags, Oil and encaustic wax on canvas
Executed in 1986
65 x 84.1 cm

  • Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC# 308)
  • Acquired from the above in August 1987 by the present owner

Estimate: US$35,000,000 - 45,000,000
Hammer Price: US$37,000,000
Sold: US$41,000,000

Lot 13 | Ed Ruscha (b. 1937) | Securing the Last Letter (Boss), Oil on canvas
Executed in 1964
149.9 x 140 cm

  • Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles
  • Ed and Audrey Sabol, Villanova, Pennsylvania (acquired by 1967) 
  • Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC# ER 13)
  • Acquired from the above in February 1988 by the present owner

Estimate: US$35,000,000 - 45,000,000
Hammer Price: US$34,000,000
Sold: US$39,400,500

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
Hammer Price: US$23,000,000
Sold: US$26,761,500

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
Hammer Price: US$19,000,000
Sold: US$22,165,500

Lot 8 | Agnes Martin (1912-2004) | Grey Stone II, Oil, gold leaf and pencil on canvas (Auction record for the artist)
Executed in 1961
182.9 x 182.9 cm

  • Robert and Dorothea Elkon, New York (acquired directly from the artist)
  • Elkon Gallery, New York 
  • Acquired from the above in April 1986 by the present owner

Estimate: US$6,000,000 - 8,000,000
Hammer Price: US$16,000,000
Sold: US$18,718,500

Lot 21 | Ed Ruscha (b. 1937) | Mint (Green), Oil on canvas
Executed in 1968
152.4 x 139.7 cm

  • Alexander Iolas, New York
  • Alexander Iolas Gallery, New York 
  • Private Collection  
  • Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC# ER 46) 
  • Acquired from the above in February 1988 by the present owner

Estimate: US$10,000,000 - 15,000,000
Hammer Price: US$11,000,000
Sold: US$12,973,500

Lot 14 | Andy Warhol (1928 - 1987) | Self-Portrait, Acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas
Executed in 1986
203.2 x 203.2 cm

  • Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London
  • Acquired from the above in July 1987 by the present owner

Estimate: US$15,000,000 - 20,000,000
Hammer Price: US$16,000,000
Sold: US$18,144,000

Lot 4 | Mark Tansey | Triumph Over Mastery II, Oil on canvas (Auction record for the artist)
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
Hammer Price: US$10,000,000
Sold: US$11,824,500 

Auction Details: 

Auction House: Sotheby's New York
Sale: The Emily Fisher Landau Collection: An Era Defined | Evening Auction
Date: 8 November 2023
Number of Lots: 31
Sold: 31
Sale Rate: 100%
Sale Total: US$406,422,100