Jonathon Keats


This story appears in the November 2015 issue of ForbesLife.


In January 2015, three months before he died, A. Alfred Taubman invited his family to lunch in Palm Beach. Along with the blood relations in attendance were several members of the clan Taubman had adopted in 1983 when he bought Sotheby’s Holdings for $124.8 million. As the meal was ending, the 90-year-old real estate mogul pulled aside George Wachter, cochairman of Sotheby’s Old Masters division. “George,” he said, “I want to go through some things with you.”

To Wachter’s astonishment, Taubman wanted to discuss the catalogue for that month’s Sotheby’s Old Masters sale, which he had carefully read and earmarked for potential purchases. Wachter offered his advice–as he had been doing reliably for decades–urging Taubman to buy a 17th-century “Penitent Magdalene” by Guercino and a 16th-century “Madonna and Child” by Ambrosius Benson. Bidding by phone, Taubman bought both works, setting the diminutive Benson by his bedside, where it remained until his death in April.

Those two paintings are once again on the block and will be featured in the January 2016 sale of Taubman’s Old Masters, one of four Sotheby’s auctions dedicated to his vast and eclectic collection. Encompassing major works by artists as varied as Raphael and Thomas Gainsborough, Edgar Degas and Egon Schiele, Amedeo Modigliani and Mark Rothko, the 500 works in the Taubman estate have been valued by Sotheby’s at more than $500 million, the highest estimate ever placed on a personal collection at auction. “Alfred’s incredible passion for art caused him to buy Sotheby’s,” Wachter says of Taubman, who acquired works from virtually every department–in effect becoming his own best customer.

The top lot in the American Art sale on November 18, a landscape by the American Luminist painter Martin Johnson Heade titled “The Great Florida Sunset,” was one such purchase. The monumental 1887 painting was originally commissioned at a cost of $2,000 by John D. Rockefeller’s business partner Henry Flagler–the railroad tycoon who created modern Florida–for the lobby of his Hotel Ponce de León in St. Augustine. Acquired by Taubman at Sotheby’s in 1988 for $1.5 million, it has a pre-auction estimate of $7 million to $10 million.

Beyond Old Masters and American classics, Taubman was also a frequent collector of Modern and Contemporary art from Sotheby’s. His most spectacular Picasso, the 1938 portrait “Femme assise sur une chaise,” depicting the artist’s mistress Dora Maar, came from the 1999 Sotheby’s auction of the Gianni Versace estate. And in 1995 Taubman was the high bidder on “Captain Cooke,” a 1988 sheet metal sculpture by John Chamberlain… Read more here.

About the author