A portrait painted by Pablo Picasso of his “golden muse” and secret lover has sold for $139.4m (£114m) at an auction by Sotheby’s in New York. Femme à la Montre becomes the second most valuable work by the artist.
Painted in 1932, the picture was described by the auctioneers Sotheby’s as the “prized jewel” of about 120 artworks owned by Emily Fisher Landau, one of the greatest art collectors of the 20th century. The sale on November 8th comfortably exceeded Sotheby’s estimate of at least $120m, but fell short of the record for a Picasso at auction, which is held by Les femmes d’Alger, which sold for $179.4m in 2015. Four other works by Picasso have sold for more than $100m in the past 20 years.
Picasso painted Femme à la Montre during his co-called “year of wonders” as he prepared for his first large-scale retrospective in Paris at the age of 50. By that time, his secret affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter had been underway for some years. The relationship began when Picasso, then aged 45, spotted the 17-year-old Marie-Thérèse through the window of Galeries Lafayette in Paris. The paintings, drawings and sculptures she inspired are among those regarded as the greatest in Picasso’s career, which spanned eight decades of the 20th Century.
Emily Fisher Landau, one of the greatest art collectors of the 20th century, began her art collections using insurance money from stolen jewellery. She bought the Picasso portrait in 1968, and displayed it above the mantelpiece in the living room of her New York apartment. She died aged 102 earlier in 2023, leaving an enormous art collection including works by Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Henri Matisse, Georgia O’Keeffe, Piet Mondrian, Paul Klee and others.
“If a person is a true collector, nothing will stand in their way to get what they want.”–EMILY FISHER LANDAU
The Collection not only tells the story of 20th-century art, but also tells the story of Emily Fisher Landau herself. Mrs. Fisher Landau’s collecting journey began in the late 1960s with the purchase of a striking Alexander Calder mobile and with a chance encounter with a poster advertising a forthcoming Josef Albers show at Pace Gallery, from which three major acquisitions followed. Mrs. Fisher Landau began to put together a major ensemble of works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, Jean Arp, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Paul Klee and Louise Nevelson among others. All were complemented, in later years, by the work of artists she came to know and patronize directly, many of whom she collected in depth. Few collectors have been as committed to building relationships with artists as she: from post-war titans such as Ed Ruscha and Jasper Johns to artists at the vanguard in the 21st century, such as Glenn Ligon and Mark Tansey, Emily Fisher Landau’s steadfast support as a patron and friend helped forge a transformative new path for each one.
Mrs. Fisher Landau’s adventurous spirit and total commitment to the art and artists of her time aligned seamlessly with the ethos of the increasingly influential Whitney Museum, a fierce champion of cutting-edge American artists, whose work it showcased in its striking Breuer building on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Beginning in the mid-1980s, and over the course of the next four decades, Mrs. Fisher Landau was deeply involved with the Whitney in many ways: a member of the acquisition committees, she also endowed the Museum’s famous Whitney Biennial exhibitions and in 2010 made a landmark donation of nearly 400 works, which was subsequently exhibited under the title “Legacy: The Emily Fisher Landau Collection”. The fourth floor of the Breuer building remains named in her honor.
The Emily Fisher Landau sale at Sotheby’s is regarded as the start of the autumn auction season, which is expected to include more than £2bn of art sold by the big three sales houses Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips.