A few of his favorite things: Ronald Lauder’s lifelong art collection, now on display
NEW YORK — Don’t ask a Jewish philanthropist Ronald S. Lauder to choose a favorite from his large art collection. He can’t do that. That’s because for the past decades he’s only collected the pieces he really, really likes.
When acquiring a piece, Lauder, the youngest son of cosmetics giants Estée and Joseph Lauder, uses what he calls the “Oh-My-God Formula.”
“It goes like this: There’s ‘Oh,’ which means when I see the play, it’s just not that important. Then there’s ‘Oh My,’ which means it’s a good play, just not one of the artist’s best works. But then there is the very rare ‘Oh My God,’ which is one of the artist’s truly great works,” Lauder wrote in an introduction to “The Ronald S. Lauder Collection” exhibition catalog for an exhibition of a pair of his favorite things in New York’s Neue Galerie.
“These are the pieces, the Oh My God artworks, which I have collected over 65 years. I would like to note here that an Oh My by a great artist will always remain just an Oh My. But an Oh My God (or OMG in today’s parlance) by a lesser artist could make that person a great artist one day.”
The public can now view some of Lauder’s OMG works at the Upper East Side’s Neue Galerie, which Lauder founded in 2001. In honor of the museum’s 20th anniversary, 500 pieces from Lauder’s personal collection are on display through February 13, 2023.
The collection of the 78-year-old former ambassador to Austria during the Reagan administration and current president of the World Jewish Congress is as diverse as it is impressive. There are numerous sterling silver kiddush cups, masterpieces of Greek and Roman sculpture, and a number of Italian gold paintings from the 13th and 14th centuries.
Beyond the dizzying array of treasures, what makes this show unique is the effort the museum made to transform its two gallery floors into a space reminiscent of the Lauder home.
“He lives with his art, which is why we recreated his rooms. He and we invite the public,” said Neue Galerie director Renée Price.
“It’s a very eclectic and very personal collection that reflects his lifelong passion and pursuit of art. There’s nothing like it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition,” Price said, nodding toward the gallery where medieval suits of armor stands guard.
As one of the leading collectors of medieval and renaissance weapons and armor in the world, Lauder donated nine items from his collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in December 2020. On display now at the Neue Galerie are complete suits of armor, shields and shirts of mail, as well as daggers, crossbows and sword.
In one gallery, the wall is painted the exact shade of yellow as in his home. In another, one of the paintings Lauder treasures most — Erich Heckel’s 1908 “Bathers in a Pond” — hangs above an intricately carved wooden mantle. The mantle and the corresponding carved wainscotting and molding in the room are reproductions of those in Lauder’s living room.
The Knights That Say ‘NEW’
The exhibition was one of the museum’s more challenging. Because the gilded mansion has no freight elevator, several pieces were hoisted through the building’s narrow windows. It’s no surprise that crowds gathered on the sidewalk and watched as medieval armor and giant bubble-wrapped marble busts appeared to float through the air.
Since its wrought iron doors first opened, the museum has hosted nearly 50 exhibitions highlighting 20th-century Austrian and German art. However, the museum is best known for Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I”, which occupies a permanent place just past the sweeping staircase.
One of the most interesting pieces in the exhibition may not be an actual work of art – rather, it is the replica art comber, or art cabinet, which holds a selection of objects, including Jewish ritual objects such as a havdalah spice box and a Torah breastplate. The cabinet is modeled after what Lauder designed for his own home.
A creamy white marble statue of Hermes from the second century AD. occupying a corner designed to look like Lauder’s private office. Nearby is a head of a Greek goddess, dated 150 BCE. It usually stands on Lauder’s Art Deco table in walnut, which has been exposed here in the exhibition except for the Alberto Giacometti table lamp.
Perhaps it’s the small corner gallery devoted to memorabilia from Lauder’s favorite movie “Casablanca” that’s as unexpected as it is relatable.
“As Time Goes By” performed by pianist Dooley Wilson plays softly and repeatedly in the background. A bejeweled brass lamp sits atop a table, both of which are movie props for Rick’s Café. The original passports designed for the actors Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid hang on the wall next to their transit papers. Among dozens of vintage posters is one of Ingrid Bergman wearing an ice blue silk dress and pink gloves.
Price recently escorted Bergman’s twin daughters Isabella and Isotta Rossellini to see the exhibition.
“I took them to see this work, their mother. They saw the passports. But to them, it’s just their mother,” Price said.