Andy Warhol diaries
“I did her portrait but it never really looked good, and the reason I wanted to do it again was because she has all these great paintings like Rauschenbergs and Picassos and I didn’t want to have mine looking bad there.” On 11 April 1984, Andy Warhol recorded this anecdote in his diary (1).
350 million dollars
He felt like he was in artistic competition at the home of Emily Fisher Landau, 720 Park Avenue in New York (Read here the last story about Andy Warhol). It should be said that from the early 1970s onwards this wealthy lady, who would go on to marry and be widowed twice, built up a remarkable collection. She died at the age of 102 in March 2023 and on 8 and 9 November in New York Sotheby’s is due to disperse a part of what she amassed. The ensemble has a total estimate of 350 million dollars and includes, for the record, one of the portraits – but probably not the most accomplished – made of Emily by Andy (estimate: 500,000 dollars).
Guaranteed or not guaranteed
To use art world jargon, it’s the auction house that has itself guaranteed the works in this collection. This is an important fact. For the past few years, long before the auctioneer’s hammer comes down, there will have been a number of talks that have partly been kept secret, intended to ensure that these auctions wouldn’t be a failure. There is in fact, in the agreements between auction house and seller, not only a reserve price – a sum beneath which the work will not be sold – but also a guarantee – the assurance that the seller will take home X amount regardless of the level of interest expressed in the room.
All changing this season
As it happens, guarantees are the subject of a whole parallel market and it has often been the case that collectors are in competition right up until the last minute to buy guarantees they would take on at a high price level, which would allow them to take home the work in the case of a last-minute lack of interest from the market, below the price set in advance. But it’s all changing this season. The economy is almost in a dismal state. Credit is expensive. The world is being severely shaken by two wars. The conflict between Israel and Hamas has echoes reaching as far as the small art circles in New York. Gallerists, critics and artists are openly taking sides on the matter, through the medium of social media or in the form of petitions.
It’s in this turbulent context that these modern and contemporary art auctions will set the tone for the next six months in the field, with a domino effect on the smaller sales. “It’s the judgment day for the market,” comments private dealer Thomas Seydoux. “This season there are many artworks being presented in large quantities and a number of them are offered without a guarantee. The risk is a demonstration of a market in recession. I’ve noticed this season that 165 lots have estimates exceeding a million dollars and 27 have estimates exceeding 10 million dollars”. (See here an other interview of Thomas Seydoux)
Is this the end of a resilient market like all the observers have been claiming up until now?
The very American Fisher Landau collection
The opening sale of the season is the Fisher Landau collection. At the time of writing, Sotheby’s has not obtained external guarantees for the ensemble presented. But Emily Fisher Landau perfectly embodies the American myth of a visionary taste for current art. She donated to the Whitney Museum one of the most significant artwork ensembles ever received by the institution: 417 pieces in all including 44 by Jasper Johns, 18 Rauschenbergs, a major painting by Cy Twombly etc… This woman from New York high society started collecting in the late 1960s after all her jewellery was stolen.
Adam Weinberg, head of the Whitney Museum, knew her for over 30 years. “She was a very instinctive collector. She used to say, ‘I can go into a room, I see five paintings by an artist and I’ll immediately know which one’s the best.” Going to her house was always a special occasion. She would be sitting on the sofa as though she was about to be photographed, in her very stylish clothes, surrounded by magnificent furniture. She was a great lady who was also very open minded and was able to cultivate interest in very young artists like Nan Goldin and Glenn Ligon.” (See here an other interview of Adam Weinberg).
Picasso in love
The superstar of the collection with the highest estimate of the season, 120 million dollars, is a painting by Pablo Picasso, “Femme à la montre”, made during his legendary year of 1932, during which the Malaga native expressed his desire for his young mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter with complex and harmonious curves. She is depicted against an electric blue background with a series of patterns in vivid hues, wearing a large hat. Her profile is completed by a moon while her breasts and painted nails are deliberately enlarged.
1932, magic year
The Tate in London and the Picasso Museum in Paris dedicated an entire exhibition specifically to his work made in 1932 (See the report about the Picasso museum show). Two of the five most expensive paintings at auction for Picasso were obtained for works from 1932 including “Femme assise près d’une fenêtre” which sold for 85.6 million (103.4 million dollars) in 2021. It is also of public notoriety that “Le rêve”, another canvas from the same year, was bought allegedly for 155 million dollars by New York hedge fund owner Steven Cohen. “La femme à la montre” is a powerful image due to its size (1.3 metres tall). According to Thomas Seydoux it is “highly commercial and it could easily have had an estimate of 150 million dollars or more.”
Passion for Ed Ruscha
Emily Fisher Landau had a particular passion for Ed Ruscha (born in 1937), a Californian Pop artist who is the subject of a retrospective being held at Moma in New York until 13 January. He once stated: “I don’t have any Seine River like Monet. I’ve just got US 66 between Oklahoma and Los Angeles.” The painter, who received recognition later than his New York Pop contemporaries, established a visual vocabulary drawing on the language of billboards that play with words and landscapes.
Who is the BOSS?
In 1964, when he was forming his verve, he painted the word BOSS in orange against a dark background including pliers twisting the letter S to make the letters seem three-dimensional (Estimate: 35 million dollars). The record price for Ruscha at auction was obtained for a painting from the same series featuring the word RADIO and dating from 1964. It sold in 2019 for 47.7 million euros (52.4 million dollars).
Rothko from the Seagram series
Still in line with current events in the museum landscape, Sotheby’s is presenting, from the Fisher Landau collection, a painting from 1958 in shades of dark red and brown by the artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970). It is part of the legendary series initially intended to be located inside the Seagram building, before the painter changed his mind. He offered nine of these canvases, before his suicide, to the Tate Modern in London.
They are on display until 2 April in what is possibly the most moving room in the Rothko exhibition at Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris (see the report on the Rothko exhibition at Fondation Louis Vuitton).
Dark or sunny Rothko
“Emily Fisher Landau met Rothko before his death but she bought this painting at the studio after he died,” explains Grégoire Billault, head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s. It has an estimate of 30 million dollars. On 9 November 2023 the rival firm Christie’s is also presenting a painting by Rothko dating this time from 1955 (the lot is guaranteed by Christie’s). Slightly smaller, it has an estimate of 45 million dollars, most likely due to its yellow and orange colours that give it a solar quality. But the record for a vibrant Rothko canvas, 81.9 million dollars, was set in 2015 for a dark painting in shades of red and black dating from 1958.
Clearly Sotheby’s has been reasonable in setting estimates for the Fisher Landau collection. “Very recently the results have been good in Paris and London. But we’re reading the news like everyone else. We are preparing for this new context by adjusting the estimates and presenting the very best,” concludes the head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s. (See here an other interview of Grégoire Billault).
The verdict will be given on 15 November following the modern and contemporary art auctions in New York.
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