Taubman Lots Unveiled Today

NEW YORK CITY -- When A. Alfred Taubman, the chairman of Sotheby’s, was convicted of leading a price-fixing scheme with Christie’s and sent to prison in 2002, the scandal rocked the elite auction world and reverberated throughout Manhattan. He left under a cloud.

Now, Sotheby’s is celebrating Mr. Taubman — who died in April at 91 — pulling out all the stops to promote the sale, beginning on Nov. 4, of his extensive art collection, from old masters like Raphael to 20th-century masterworks by Modigliani (work pictured here estimated to bring $35 million), Matisse, Picasso, Schiele, and de Kooning.

Art collectors of Art Kabinett social media network are visiting the Sotheby's showroom to see the Taubman collection.

Sotheby’s plan to augment its own fortunes depends, in part, on whether it can resurrect a positive image of Taubman that today’s public may not recall: that of a legacy collector, an esteemed patron, and, as the catalog calls him, “an American gentleman.”

“This is a historic sale,” said Simon Shaw, Sotheby’s co-head of Impressionist and modern art worldwide. “There has never been a collection of this significance.”

Sotheby’s marketing efforts include a custom-printed banner around its Upper East Side headquarters featuring images of artworks in the collection as part of the pre-sale exhibition, which opens on Saturday.

It has redesigned the 10th-floor exhibition space to evoke Mr. Taubman’s Bauhaus aesthetic. The glossy 400-page catalog, with essays by the cosmetics tycoon Leonard A. Lauder and the retail executive Leslie Wexner, and a biographical online video featuring Henry A. Kissinger, are reminders of how much is riding on the auction.

Coveted Consignment

Not only did Sotheby’s fight hard to win the sale away from its archrival Christie’s (finally succeeding after several months’ effort in September) but it fully guaranteed the sale for $500 million to the Taubman family.

Sotheby’s declined to say whether it has been able to share some of that financial commitment with third-party guarantors, although GE Capitol is considered part of this deal.

Sotheby’s hopes the sale, which includes more than 500 pieces spread across four dedicated auctions, ranks among the biggest, like Christie’s $477 million Yves St. Laurent sale in 2009, particularly since it has been losing ground to Christie’s in postwar and contemporary art.

Moreover, the sale represents the first real test for Sotheby’s president and chief executive, Tad Smith, who took over in March (promising shareholders that he would make judicious use of guarantees to sellers).

The stakes are also high for the Taubman family, which not only wants to make as much as possible (proceeds will go toward estate taxes and a private foundation), but to affirm its patriarch’s legacy as a respected collector.

“If I could dream of anything out of the auction, it is that one day they’ll talk about Taubman as a provenance — the way we talk about Thannhauser or Havemeyer or Gould,” said Mr. Taubman’s son William, 56, in a recent interview at the auction house. “That would be a great tribute to my father.”

Some collectors and dealers say the collection has been overhyped, that Mr. Taubman often bought pieces at the low estimate that would not otherwise have sold — partly as a favor to Sotheby’s specialists who asked for his help.

And others say Mr. Taubman chose well over his more than 60 years of amassing pieces by artists ranging from Dalí to Degas.

Among the highlights are two Rothkos (each estimated at $20 million to $30 million), a de Kooning ($25 million to $35 million) and four Picassos (one of which is estimated at $25 million to $35 million).

Most of these pieces have not been seen for years, having been in Mr. Taubman’s residences (in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; Palm Beach, Fla.; Southampton, N.Y.; and New York City).

Reinvented Sotheby's

During his 22 years as Sotheby’s principal owner, Mr. Taubman, a shopping mall magnate, transformed the auction business from one directed at dealers and gallerists to one that directly targeted collectors. “More than any other single figure, he created today’s auction market,” Mr. Shaw said.

Sotheby’s became publicly traded under Mr. Taubman, who sold his controlling stake in 2005 but continued to attend the auction house’s sales and exhibitions.

His long history with Sotheby’s would make the auction house seem like the obvious resting place for Mr. Taubman’s collection — particularly since his son Robert is on the board and his stepdaughter, Tiffany Dubin, works there as a vice president.

But the Taubman family made Sotheby’s work to win the sale, an approach William said his father would have supported.

Diverse Private Collection

The elder Mr. Taubman did not collect along thematic lines, William said, although there are some consistencies. “My father loved faces,” William said, “whether Schiele or Modigliani or Bacon” — and geometric pieces, all of which he mixed together in his homes.

The auction house has tried to recreate the feeling of the Taubman home in designing its exhibition, giving the rooms domestic scale – in particular one meant to feel like a Park Avenue living room — “so they can understand just how it’s going to look in their homes,” William said.

Visitors will view Frank Stella’s geometric painting through a Henry Moore sculpture, for example, “the way you did in my father’s house,” William said.

Mr. Taubman made his fortune owning real estate, A&W root beer, movie theaters, department stores and malls. Trained as an architect, he had a sharp aesthetic eye, William said, starting to collect in the 1950s and buying contemporary art before it was in vogue — Morris Louis, Andy Warhol and Franz Kline.

Seemingly far from peoples’ minds, Sotheby’s hopes, will be Mr. Taubman’s history as someone who served nearly 10 months in prison. (Christie’s chief executive, Christopher M. Davidge, won amnesty from prosecution; its former chairman, Anthony Tennant, who was charged with Mr. Taubman, never stood trial.)

Ultimately, William said, the sale represents the taste of one man who bought what he liked, and wanted to live with — and who sold things rarely.