‘You Only Regret What You Don’t Buy’: Leonard Lauder on His Life as an Art Collector

‘You Only Regret What You Don’t Buy’: Leonard Lauder on His Life as an Art Collector

Leonard Lauder, 87, is an heir to the Estée Lauder Companies fortune. He been on ARTnews’s annual Top 200 Collectors list since 1990. In 2013, he promised his Cubism collection to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and has been a major donor to the Whitney Museum. The following is an an excerpt from his newly published memoir The Company I Keep: My Life in Beauty.
I’ve always had the soul of a collector. Ask any collector how it all began, and you’ll hear stories about childhood fascinations ranging from bottle caps to beetles to baseball cards. I was no different. I started early and have been building collections ever since.

I was first bitten by the collecting bug when I was eight years old and attending a boarding school in Miami Beach. My fellow students used to collect and trade postcards of the beautiful Art Deco hotels: “Hey, I’ll give you a Shelborne Hotel for a Roney Plaza.” (During World War II, almost all of the grand hotels in Miami Beach were appropriated by the U.S. Air Force to house cadets—except for the Shelborne. As one of the few active hotels, its postcards were particularly prized.)

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I eventually amassed over 125,000 vintage postcards. Most were donated to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, with particular collections going to the Neue Gallerie in New York, founded by my brother, Ronald, and the Newberry Library in Chicago.
Postcards were the “gateway drug” to my next collecting passion: American posters. I acquired my first one in 1943, when I was 10. The Office of War Information (OWI) issued a series of patriotic posters. “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” “Food Is A Weapon—Don’t Waste It,” and, of course, “We Can Do It” (aka “Rosie the Riveter”), as well as thousands of other slogans incorporated into dramatic, vibrant images that captured my imagination. One of the most memorable: a sailor whose ship was torpedoed, desperately reaching out of the dark waters under the ominous two-word warning of the consequences of gossiping about convoy departures, “Someone Talked!”
I eventually donated nearly 200 American posters to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. And collecting posters was the perfect training/practice for the ultimate step for me: collecting fine art. I had become interested in modern art back when I was in elementary school. I was crazy about films and two or three times a week, I’d take the subway by myself—kids had an extraordinary amount of freedom in those days—to watch classic movies at the Museum of Modern Art. If I arrived early or had time after the film ended, I would wander through the galleries. I didn’t discover Cubism then, but I experienced the great satisfaction of savoring a picture again and again and making it “mine.”

My favorite pieces were Pavel Tchelitchew’s Hide-and-Seek, Peter Blume’s The Eternal City, and, especially, Oskar Schlemmer’s The Bauhaus Steps (Bauhaustreppe), which hung over the main staircase as you entered. What all these pictures had in common was a new point of view, a new way of looking at things, so different from a photograph. Perhaps that was the seed that germinated into my love of Cubism.
Another important moment came in 1966, when Parke-Bernet, the largest auctioneer of fine art in the United States before being acquired by Sotheby’s, auctioned the collection of the Pittsburgh industrialist G. David Thompson. It was an extraordinary collection of 20th-century art. I went to Parke-Bernet two or three times, just to view the works. It showed me how one collector could assemble a great group of paintings by different artists yet leave his personal stamp on them. As diverse as they were, they were connected by what I came to call “the collector’s glue.”
Also in the back of my mind, I think I wondered why this great collection was being broken up for sale to private owners when it could have formed the nucleus of a new museum or added strength to an existing one. My first major art purchase was from that auction, a collage by Kurt Schwitters, a German abstract artist working in the first half of the 20th century. 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—$3,500 was a lot of money for me—but I was enchanted by how Schwitters put the various pieces and materials together in a way that was simultaneously comprehensible and incomprehensible. I could look at that collage for hours.
I had to have it.
The Three “O’s”
Every avid collector assembles their collection for a different reason: some do it for an investment; some do it to compete with other people; some do it to gloat over their hoard. There’s a story about one Japanese collector who loved his Monet so much that he asked to be buried with it.
Not me. I collect for two reasons. First, for the thrill of creating a complete collection. It’s hard for someone who is not a crazy collector to fully understand how exciting it is when you can fill in the missing element of a collection. It’s like fitting in the key piece in a jigsaw puzzle or solving a tough clue in a crossword puzzle. There’s a deep sense of joy when the dots are connected and everything makes sense.
Note that I said “complete collection,” not “encyclopedic.” In my opinion, selectivity always plays a major part in forming a unified collection. There is as much significance in the works I rejected as in those that made the final cut; I chose them—or not—for their quality, composition, and historic value. The decisions reflect my personal vision of the collection as a whole.
The second reason I collect is to conserve and share what I’m assembling for present and future generations. For me, the ultimate satisfaction is not in possession but in building a museum-worthy compilation and giving it away.
The road to putting together a coherent collection is often meandering—at least it was in my case. When I started to buy “serious” art, it was really a hodgepodge of artists and things that I liked: Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele watercolors, and the final study for Schlemmer’s The Bauhaus Steps, the painting I had loved as a boy.
I was willing to go into debt to buy my first Klimt painting. Even though I had a reasonably good income, I really didn’t have the means to collect the art that I loved. But my mother used to say, “You only regret what you don’t buy.” I did not want to regret losing that Klimt.
The development of the uneducated, untutored eye is a journey. You go from liking the good to appreciating the better to loving the best. My brother Ronald, one of the great collectors of our time, codified his approach to collecting into what he calls “the three O’s”: Oh! Oh, my! Oh, my God!!!
His rule: “Only go for the third ‘O.’” The third “O” ensures that every piece is the best it can be. I agree wholeheartedly.

HarperCollins

Falling for Cubism
From my early visits to the Museum of Modern Art, I was drawn to the Cubist Picassos. They weren’t as easy to understand as the Impressionist paintings, such as the great water lily series by Monet that was also at MoMA. There was always a complication, a grittiness that attracted me. I had to work hard to discover what was great about them, but once I did, I fell in love.
I acquired my first Cubist work, by Fernand Léger, in 1976, followed by Picasso’s 1909 painting Carafe and Candlestick, in 1980. I began educating myself, learning about the painters who created Cubism, studying their pictures and philosophy, getting to know the art dealers and collectors who specialized in their works. I spent a lot of time looking at the art at MoMA. I got every book I could lay my hands on, especially the catalogues raisonnés, those comprehensive, annotated listings of all the known artworks by an artist either in a particular medium or all media. I read them again and again and again, usually while I was on my exercise bike in the morning. Each evening, I would sit down and look at a Cubist painting. Each time, I would see something I hadn’t seen before. I loved reading about them and discovering the hidden secrets that were in plain sight.
My textbook was Picasso: The Cubist Years, by Pierre Daix and Joan Rosselet. I pored over that book almost daily—although, to be honest, I was more interested in the images than in the often dense, scholarly essays. And I always kept an eye peeled for the reference of the painting’s owner. If the source said “private collection,” that meant that someday it might come my way. If it did, I’d be ready for it.
I was developing my eye and my self-confidence. One painting by Picasso—Nôtre Avenir est dans l ’Air, also known as The Scallop Shell—particularly fascinated me. I learned everything I could about it and, in 1984, to my delight, acquired it. One day, I attended a lecture by Kirk Varnedoe, a brilliant art historian and the senior curator of art at MoMA. What should be projected onto the screen but Nôtre Avenir. Varnedoe proclaimed, “This is one of the most important Cubist pictures ever painted.” Why? “Because it is the turning point between the original Analytical Cubism, which is very abstract, and the later Synthetic Cubism, which has many more elements in it and almost looks like a collage—a background of total abstraction and a foreground of objects pasted on top.”
I sat there in the darkened room and said to myself, “That’s my picture! Could it be that I have the makings of a great museum collection?”
It was a turning point for me. From that moment on, I felt confident that I could put together a collection worthy of the best museums in the world.
I decided to focus my entire collecting efforts on Cubism and on the four artists who created the movement: Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, and Juan Gris. Working at a time of revolutionary ideas—the early days of man-powered flight, Freud’s dream analysis, Einstein’s theory of relativity—these four shattered conventions and blasted open a gateway to modern art. I determined to build a collection “with a connoisseur’s eye,” one that would convey Cubism’s full narrative arc.
Everything I chose had to make the cut. What was the cut? I knew I wanted my collection to go to a museum, but there was more to it. Many museums have key works of art that are almost always on display: think of Van Gogh’s Starry Night at MoMA or Mona Lisa at the Louvre or Guernica in Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofia. Other works often have a brief moment in the spotlight, then are taken down. I wanted to create a collection in which every painting was strong enough to make any curator say, “Let’s keep it up longer.”
Fortunately, there was a lot of Cubist art available at the time. It was expensive, yes, but the prices were nowhere near the stratosphere that paintings by Impressionist artists commanded.
I was one of the few people interested purely in Cubism at the time. Christopher Burge, then the chairman of Christie’s in the United States, told me that whenever he had an exhibition of up- coming works of art to be auctioned that included Cubist paintings, many people simply walked past those pictures, without even glancing at them. They were so difficult to understand that people weren’t interested in collecting them. Back then, the market was much stronger for Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. I only had enough money to concentrate in one area, and that was going to be Cubism. Furthermore, focusing on the four key artists helped me to refine the collection and conserve my resources so that I would have funds to buy the best whenever it came along.
It was the beginning of 35 years of study, travel, buying, selling, perseverance, mistakes, and refinement. I put in a lot of miles over two continents researching, getting to know the right dealers, attending auctions, and “talking pictures off the wall” of private collections.
I got to know the few dealers who specialized in Cubism. One of the earliest lessons I learned: never be a bottom-fisherman. I always paid the price being asked and paid as quickly as I could. Most art dealers never had enough ready cash, so if they could make a sale without bargaining and receive the payment immediately, they would think about me favorably—and the next time would call me first. That didn’t mean that I got all the calls. But I got enough to make me happy.
I have no regrets.
I can look at the pieces again and again and I’m always discovering something new. Each artist in the collection learned from the others, and sometimes I see a relationship between them for the first time or a hidden detail that had gone previously unnoticed, or I learn about an element of the iconography that has just been decoded. The collages, for example, never cease to yield new references to the world at large, to new ways of seeing. And that opens up new interpretations of other pictures.
That’s what makes the collection such a pleasure for me. I have no favorite pictures. The collection is a whole, like one piece of cloth. You can’t pull a single strand out without everything coming with it.
The result of my efforts would eventually become the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection of some 78 paintings, drawings, and sculptures, including 33 Picassos and 17 Braques, which in 2013 was promised to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The news made the front page of the New York Times—and above the fold, too.
From the book The Company I Keep: My Life in Beauty by Leonard A. Lauder. ©2020 by Leonard A. Lauder. Reprinted by permission of Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.


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