Leonard Lauder: The man who put Cubism in the Met

The billionaire philanthropist reveals how he amassed a collection of works by Picasso, Braque, Gris and Léger with a museum in mind


The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York unveiled Leonard Lauder’s Cubist collection at the end of October—a promised gift of more than 80 works by Picasso, Braque, Gris and Léger that transforms the institution’s Modern art collection. Lauder, the emeritus chairman of the cosmetics company Estée Lauder, has also endowed a research centre for Modern art at the museum, which will house Lauder’s Cubist archive and library.

As well as the exhibition (until 16 February 2015), the Met has launched a website dedicated to the collection that Lauder has spent more than 30 years acquiring. Emily Braun, the longstanding curator of Lauder’s Cubist collection, interviewed the collector for the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue, Cubism: the Leonard A. Lauder Collection, published by the Met and distributed by Yale University Press.

In this excerpt, Lauder describes how he began to collect Cubism, his in-depth study of the movement and a memorable day 20 years ago when he visited the Geneva Freeport to have first pick of the late Douglas Cooper’s collection.

Emily Braun: How did you begin collecting?

Leonard Lauder: For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve been a collector. I started as a seven- or eight-year-old, collecting picture postcards of Art Deco hotels in Miami Beach. The way the architecture worked fascinated me—the almost surrealistic way that a hotel was plunked down on the beach, surrounded by nothing but blue sky and ocean. Was that the way it really was? No, but that’s the way they wanted you to see it, and I loved it.

How did you discover Modern art?

Through film. I was passionately interested in film. My parents let me travel all over the city by myself. Two or three times a week, I would go downtown to watch classic movies at the Museum of Modern Art [MoMA]. If I arrived early, I would wander through the museum. If possible, after the movie was over, I would linger in the galleries. I didn’t discover Cubism then, but I did experience the great pleasure of savouring a picture again and again and making it mine. These were the years 1944 to 1946… my favourite was Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus Stairway, 1932, which was hanging over the main staircase as you entered. I loved that painting and yearned for it.

Where did you get the money to buy what you wanted?

I grew up in the Depression era, so I learned to save. When I entered first grade, every member of our class had to bring in five cents during the first week of school to open a savings account at a bank. I kept adding to that account over the years—no withdrawals, only deposits. In fact, that early bank book, as well as my parents’ savings, became the foundation of the Estée Lauder company. I’ve often said: “You can take the baby out of the Depression, but you can’t take the Depression out of the baby.” Contrary to what you may think from reading the press, I grew up in a household where money had to be doled out carefully and thoughtfully.

When did your collecting get more “serious”?

My first major art purchase was [at] auction—a Kurt Schwitters collage, Mz 79. Herz-Klee, 1920 [in 1966]. I remember sitting in the salesroom raising my hand and being terrified every step of the way. I couldn’t believe that I was bidding all that money for a tiny collage, but it was a brilliant one. I knew it would form the cornerstone of a great collection.

That said, I couldn’t believe how much I paid for it. I think it was $3,500. I then bought a second one [Mz 30, 7, 1930] at auction a year later, for much less, so I could feel better by averaging down!

Why did Schwitters appeal to me? I found his abstract collages simultaneously comprehensible and incomprehensible. His very act of putting the various pieces and materials together and seeing it as a whole was something that I found very exciting and aesthetically pleasing.

What were your very first Cubist works, and how did you happen to acquire them?

I walked into Sotheby’s one day, as I often did. It was 1976, and they were auctioning a Léger watercolour of 1920 [Study for “The Aviator”], which came from the Lester Avnet collection. It was small, semi-abstract and had elements that reminded me of Russian Constructivism and Bauhaus design. I bought it and loved it from the day it entered my house.

My first Cubist painting was Picasso’s Carafe and Candlestick [1909], which I acquired in 1980. It had everything. It was beautifully executed—almost like a gouache, although it is oil on canvas—with a nod, perhaps more than a nod, to Cézanne. It came from Eugene Thaw, who was the pre-eminent dealer of Cubism in New York. I didn’t know at the time that he had partnered on the sale with Heinz Berggruen. Later, I realised that several of the dealers made partnerships with each other. I don’t know how they split the profits, but it didn’t matter as long as I got the picture.

The Picasso was getting lonely all by itself, so I looked to see what else was available. Thaw had bought major pictures from the Leigh and Mary Block collection in Chicago, and from him I acquired their Picasso, The Scallop Shell: “Notre Avenir est dans l’Air” [1912]. I didn’t fully understand the painting at the time, other than to know that it was great.

Some years later, I attended a lecture on Cubism at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, given by Kirk Varnedoe, the brilliant art historian and, later, chief curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA. As I sat in the darkened room listening to him, up on the screen flashed my Notre Avenir. Kirk spoke about various elements of the work and explained why it was a transition between Analytic and Synthetic Cubism.

It was an epiphany for me; buried in each of these Cubist paintings were hidden meanings, thoughts and history. Not just looking at them but studying them gave me enormous pleasure, as well as finding out their origins and what they had led to. The time that I spent in that lecture room was probably the most valuable hour or two of my art-collecting life. I introduced myself to Kirk, and we became friends.

As the saying goes, you may know what you like, but how do you know if what you like is important?

From putting together my collection of picture postcards, I learned that you need to know what you’re looking at to understand its value. As a history buff, when I scoured the flea markets of Europe for postcards, I was able to identify the events that had been captured in the photographic cards, where there were often no captions. I realised that you can’t become a great collector of anything unless you study and learn what is good, what you should look for and what is rare. The uneducated collector often makes mistakes. When I decided to focus on Cubism, I got every book I could lay my hands on—especially the catalogues raisonnés—and read them again and again… and again. I was more interested in the images, in truth, than in the often dense and obscure writings. My textbook was Pierre Daix and Joan Rosselet’s Picasso: the Cubist Years, 1907-16. I pored over that book almost daily. If something said “private collection”, that meant that someday it might come my way. If it did, I’d be ready for it.

Recount your acquisition of the Cooper collection.

The story begins in 1983, when I flew to London to see the Cubism exhibition that had been organised by Douglas Cooper and Gary Tinterow for the Tate. My jaw dropped when I saw the treasures hung on the walls, many of which came from Cooper’s own collection. I asked myself how one person could have assembled such a wonderful group of paintings. How could it be that others were not collecting art from such an important movement? I met Douglas and had a warm conversation with him. I’d been told that he was impossible, but he was enormously cordial to me. Who would have known that, five years later, several of those same paintings would be on my wall? Sometime after he died in 1984, I got a telephone call from the dealer John Herring, who told me that Douglas’s partner, adopted son and heir, Billy McCarty-Cooper, was looking for collectors who might be interested in acquiring all or a large part of the collection. A date was made for McCarty-Cooper’s representatives to visit me; apparently, they wanted to vet my collection to see if it was worthy of receiving some of Douglas’s pictures. On the appointed day, John Herring showed up with the art historian Angelica Rudenstine. They looked around and said that the core of my collection—some eight major works by then—was the right match. We made a date to view the Cooper works in Geneva. I was wildly excited and immediately reserved a plane ticket. I had no idea of the vastness of the collection.

And they gave you no list?

I had seen the Tate exhibition, of course, and knew of one major portrait, Nude in an Armchair, 1909, the best of Picasso’s long series from Horta de Ebro, which alone was important enough to lure me to Geneva. Then I received a call from Bill Acquavella, a friend and dealer from whom I have bought many things, inviting me to breakfast with Heinz Berggruen the day I was scheduled to fly to Geneva. Heinz told me that Douglas Cooper had been a longtime friend and had offered him the collection before he died. Since he was going to get it, he wanted to gauge my interest in it. I kept a straight face and told him that I would give the matter some consideration and get back to them. I didn’t want to tell them that I had plans to fly to Geneva that very evening.

After I arrived, I met Billy’s lawyer and was then taken to the warehouse complex outside Geneva known as the Freeport. The visit was the most remarkable and memorable event in my entire collecting history. As a little boy, I had daydreamed that the owner of FAO Schwarz would invite me to take any toy in the store I wanted. Or, indeed, all the toys I wanted. When I entered the secure space where the collection was stored, I felt as though I had stepped into a Cubist wonderland.

It was a large place with crates sitting on the floor, all opened, with drawings and other works on paper spilling out of them. Propped against the wall were so many paintings that I couldn’t believe my eyes. I recognised all of them, and my heart skipped a beat. Basically, my hosts said that I could have as many as I wanted. Price was never discussed, just the question: “Which ones do you want?” I looked at each work carefully; by that time, I had seen enough and bought enough Cubist works to know what was good, better and best.

While in the Freeport, they kept repeating: “Leonard, take more!” I was overwhelmed by the scope. I returned to the hotel alone and started to think about what it was that I wanted. It wasn’t until later that we discussed price. I had to borrow $22m from the bank for 18 works. That was the equivalent of 35 years’ salary for me.

How do you think the Cooper deal affected your profile or your sense of yourself as a collector?

I had always considered myself a collector but never one in the major league. From that point forward, I decided to acquire only the best Cubist works and stick to Braque, Picasso, Léger and Gris.

The Cooper deal also made me realise that I had a huge responsibility to preserve my collection, not only because it became the largest collection of Cubism in private hands but also because Billy McCarty-Cooper had ensured that Cooper’s collection would not simply be dispersed to the winds. This was a clear signal that it was now my responsibility to maintain this treasured collection, enlarge it and, ultimately, leave it to a museum.

• Cubism: the Leonard A. Lauder Collection, Emily Braun and Rebecca Rabinow (eds), Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 392pp, £40, $65, ISBN 978 03 002 0807 8 (hb)


Key works in Lauder’s Cubist gift

Picasso and Braque, the “Wright brothers” of Cubism

Leonard Lauder says that discovering “the hidden meanings, thoughts and history” buried in each of the Cubist works he is donating to the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a major source of pleasure.

In 1980, he bought Pablo Picasso’s The Scallop Shell: “Notre Avenir est dans l’Air”, 1912 (above), his second Cubist painting, which he only began to fully appreciate after he attended a lecture given by the art historian and curator Kirk Varnedoe.

The work includes many topical references. For example, Picasso and Georges Braque were interested in aviation. Indeed, Picasso once compared his partnership with Braque in developing Cubism to the Wright brothers’ early flights, so the Michelin brochure that features in the work—along with its slogan, “our future is in the air”—held a special meaning. Picasso is even said to have nicknamed Braque “Wilbur” or “Wilbourg”, after one of the aviation pioneers.


Power of “little cubes”

Georges Braque painted Trees at L’Estaque (right) in the summer of 1908. When six of his radical new works were rejected that September by the jury of the Salon d’Automne—Matisse is said to have refused the paintings because they were full of “little cubes”—his dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, organised a solo show at his gallery that November. It included this early Cubist landscape.

Lauder told his curator, Emily Braun, that if he could go back in time, he would visit the Braque exhibition. Lauder imagines walking into Kahnweiler’s gallery, looking around, and saying, “Ah, how new, how exciting—I wish I could take them all home.”

Lauder eventually took Trees at L’Estaque home—in 1986, when he bought it from Douglas Cooper’s estate.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘The man who put Cubism in the Met'


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