On Wednesday, November 8th, Sotheby’s York Avenue location in New York hosted one of the most monumental sales this year. Emily Fisher Landau amassed her incredible modern and contemporary art collection because of an insurance payout from Lloyd’s of London. Her jewelry collection, which her husband Martin had gifted to her piece by piece over the years, was stolen from her Manhattan apartment in 1969 while she was out to lunch. Until her death this past March, she had collected dozens of modern masterpieces by artists like Georgia O’Keefe, Robert Rauschenberg, and Mark Rothko, even getting Andy Warhol to paint her portrait in 1982.
Sotheby’s divided the consigned works into two parts, with the evening sale on Wednesday comprising a small number of the most valuable works. High up on everyone’s list of lots to pay attention to was the 1932 Picasso painting Femme à la montre, a portrait of the artist’s mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter. 1932 was a miracle year for Picasso, who discovered new creative energy and critical acclaim after fearing he would slip into obscurity, particularly in the shadow of Henri Matisse. The work’s title also points out something some might gloss over nowadays. Meaning Woman with Watch, Femme à la montre shows Walter in an armchair wearing a wristwatch. At the time of its creation, accessories like wristwatches were seen as something that mostly men would wear. However, the portrait acts as a document not only of Picasso’s life and where he existed personally and artistically but also as a testament to the increasingly fluid gender norms of the early twentieth century. Sotheby’s specialists did not doubt that the Picasso would be the sale’s dominant star. Estimated to sell for $120 million, bidding on Femme à la montre started at $100 million, working its way up slightly past the estimate, with the hammer coming down at $121 million (or $139.36 million w/p). This puts the work sold at Sotheby’s in second place among the most expensive Picasso paintings sold at auction, with the only work ahead of it being Les femmes d’Alger, which sold at Christie’s New York in 2015 for $160 million (or $179.4 million w/p). The Picasso would not be the only second-place record at Sotheby’s that evening.
The sale’s top lots all came within the first half of the sale. Slightly before the Picasso crossed the block was Flags by Jasper Johns, made from oil paint and wax on canvas in 1986. Jasper Johns first thought of painting the American flag in 1954. Flags, created over thirty years later, shows the artist’s ability to rework a single motif over decades and decades. Predicted to sell for between $35 million and $45 million, the Johns sold for slightly above the minimum at $37 million (or $41 million w/p). A few lots after the Picasso was a large oil painting by Ed Ruscha, measuring 59 by 55 inches. Created in 1964, Securing the Last Letter (Boss) consists of the word ‘boss’ in large red-orange letters against a dark blue background. A c-clamp is secured against the word’s last letter, scrunching up the top of the letter like a piece of cloth. Ruscha created a series of these paintings in the 1960s, including Ripe, Pool, and Honk. Also expected to sell between $35 million and $45 million, the hammer came down slightly below the minimum at $34 million (or $39.4 million w/p). This makes Securing the Last Letter the second-most-expensive work by Ed Ruscha ever sold at auction.
These incredibly valuable single-collector sales often don’t have many great surprises. It can actually be rather difficult when achieving double or triple the maximum estimate entails spending millions or sometimes tens of millions of dollars more than what Sotheby’s had initially expected. However, one surprise in the Landau collection was an Agnes Martin painting from 1961. Grey Stone II consists of oil paint, pencil, and gold leaf on a perfectly square 72-by-72-inch canvas and is part of the artist’s minimalist grid paintings. Expected to sell for no more than $8 million, bidding on the Marin opened at $4 million but quickly jumped to $7 million within ten seconds, surpassing the high estimate within fifteen. The price climbed by increasingly smaller increments for seven minutes, finally reaching $16 million (or $18.7 million w/p). This set a new auction record for Martin, with that title previously belonging to Untitled #44, a painting of equal size that sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2021 for $15.2 million (or $17.7 million w/p).
By the end of the night, the Emily Fisher Landau evening sale was the most expensive sale of the year, bringing in a total of $351.6 million against a pre-sale total estimate of $344.5 million to $430.1 million. The sale’s top three lots earned the number one, eight, and nine spots of the year’s top ten most valuable lots sold at auction. Furthermore, the Landau evening sale now ranks second in the sales with the best specialist accuracy rates. Twenty of the thirty-one lots sold within their estimates, giving Sotheby’s specialists a 65% accuracy rate. The only sale this year that did better was the Banksy sale at Sotheby’s London on September 26th, which had a 71% accuracy rate. Eight lots (26%) sold below estimate, while three (10%) sold above. No lots went unsold, which is not surprising since most of them were guaranteed anyway. But while the sale was a brilliant moment for Sotheby’s, of course, Christie’s had to step in and put on a bigger, even more impressive sale the day after.