The late art patron, collector and philanthropist Emily Fisher Landau seems to have had a talent for finding silver linings. As a nascent collector in the 1960s, she acquired, with the guidance of friend and gallery owner Arne Glimcher, works by Picasso, Léger and Dubuffet. Fisher Landau (then Mrs. Martin Fisher) had fallen in love with art but hadn’t yet immersed herself in it. That would change in 1969 after armed burglars invaded the Fisher’s apartment in New York’s Imperial House before making off with a substantial quantity of jewelry.
Emotionally, the loss was incalculable—the pieces represented decades of gifts from her husband. In Lloyds of London’s ledgers, however, the jewelry’s value was very much enumerable, and Fisher Landau saw the insurance payout as an opportunity.
“I was devastated,” she said many years later in interviews for the catalog for the Whitney’s Legacy: The Emily Fisher Landau Collection exhibition. “But I decided that I didn’t want the jewelry anymore. I now had seed money for a collection.”
Fisher Landau, who died earlier this year at age 102, went on to call the theft one of the best things to ever happen to her. What she really wanted to buy, according to the interviews, was paintings, and she quickly acquired major works by Piet Mondrian, Jean Arp, Franz Kline and Paul Klee, among others. She also immersed herself in the city’s art scene, engaging with artists she met through Glimcher and Fred Mueller.
Relationship building was a hallmark of her approach to collecting—a passion she pursued until Martin’s death in 1976 and then again after marrying Sheldon Landau in 1981. She struck up friendships with artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring, Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Nevelson, Cy Twombly, Glenn Ligon and Nan Goldin, visiting studios and buying up works. But while her network grew to include many notable names—Warhol painted her, artists like Jasper Johns sold pieces directly to her—she didn’t focus on trends or an artist’s prominence or performance, but instead collected whatever spoke to her.
“Emily always said that her finest talent was to be able to look at a group of works and pick out the best,” Adam D. Weinberg, Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney, told Sotheby’s, which will auction 120 pieces from Fisher Landau’s 1,500-work collection in two landmark sales happening this November.
The auction house announced The Emily Fisher Landau Collection: An Era Defined from the historic Breuer Building, which it bought from the Whitney in June. It was fitting, given that the building’s fourth floor was home to the Whitney’s Emily Fisher Landau Galleries. Moreover, the collector was a working member of the Whitney Museum of American Art board for thirty years and endowed the Whitney Biennial exhibitions—in addition to founding the Long Island City’s Emily Fisher Landau Center and serving on the boards of several major institutions.
The pieces to be auctioned are on view at the Breuer Building through September 15, after which the collected works will be exhibited in Dubai, Hong Kong, London, Paris, Taipei and Los Angeles before returning to New York for the November 8 evening and November 9 day sales. Standout works include Picasso’s Femme à la montre (with an estimate in excess of $120 million), Jasper Johns’ Flags (high estimate $45 million), a 1986 Warhol self-portrait (high estimate $20 million) and Robert Rauschenberg’s Sundog (estimate upon request). All told, the Fisher Landau sales are expected to bring in $400 million, and several new artist auction records may be set.