Ronald Lauder at Neue Galerie in 2006 with Klimt’s ‘Adele Bloch Bauer I’

Ronald Lauder is not joking when he says that some of the world’s major museums are not big enough to house his collection. “No one has the room for it; maybe the Louvre if they cleaned out a whole wing. The British Museum is too small.” Indeed, to say that the younger son of cosmetics colossus Estée Lauder is a prolific collector is something of an understatement.

Towering over Central Park, the Manhattan headquarters of Estée Lauder Companies houses some exceptional works of art. In the reception area alone, two pieces leave me gobsmacked: a wooden sled by Joseph Beuys and a figurative painting by Gerhard Richter, both from the 1960s. I walk past another essential Beuys work, a 1970 felt suit hanging outside Ronald Lauder’s office, then I spot a Manet drawing hanging in a side room, and finally enter an astonishing archive detailing every piece in the businessman’s collection.

It’s a vast, disciplined depository where scholarship appears to be a priority. When asked to put a figure on the number of works in his holdings, Lauder’s chief curator Elizabeth Kujawski declines to answer my “impossible question” (in the 2010 Taschen publication Collecting Design, Lauder says he owns about 4,000 decorative art objects alone).

Building encyclopaedic collections is Lauder’s raison d’être. The billionaire, described on Estée Lauder’s website as chairman of Clinique Laboratories, has focused on numerous fields including medieval art, arms and armour, Old Master paintings, French Impressionist drawings and modern and contemporary art.

“The real aspect is that most collectors collect in one field, some in one and two. We probably collect in 10 to 15 fields, and nobody else does that. In each area, I think we have the best,” Lauder says, with the conviction of a politician (he served as Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Austria). His vision and appetite know no bounds: he even owns six versions of a coffee table designed by the late Japanese-American designer Isamu Noguchi.

It is well known that Lauder categorises art in three ways: “There is ‘Oh’, ‘Oh My’, ‘Oh My God’ – I always get the ‘Oh My Gods’.” There are plenty of “Oh My Gods” housed at the Neue Galerie, the striking museum he set up on Fifth Avenue in 2001 to display his collection of early 20th-century German and Austrian art and design. As president of the gallery, Lauder keeps a keen eye on all aspects of gallery management and programming.

The Neue Galerie is hugely important to Lauder, and not just as a philanthropic grand projet. The institution is also testament to his 30-year friendship with Austrian-American dealer Serge Sabarsky, who helped Lauder assemble his collection. Sabarsky died in 1996 but was instrumental in helping establish the gallery. Lauder wistfully recalls that his late like-minded cohort, an authority on the art of Klimt and Schiele, was a “major influence” on how he sees and acquires art.

Vivarini’s ‘Madonna and Child’ (c1480)

Lauder’s holdings of art and furniture by the Wiener Werkstätte (the influential Austrian design collective founded in 1903), believed to be the largest outside Vienna, are a nucleus of the Neue Galerie. A 2011 show of Lauder’s works at the gallery, meanwhile, revealed a selection of key acquisitions including Cézanne’s “Man with Crossed Arms” (1899) and Bartolomeo Vivarini’s breathtaking “Madonna and Child” (c1480).

Lauder’s history of collecting is long, from buying his first work at auction aged 14 (a watercolour by Jules Pascin for $300 at Hôtel Drouot in Paris) to finding his first drawings by Schiele and Klimt in Vienna. “I paid $1,000 for the pair. Shortly thereafter, I traded them for a Schiele self-portrait …I was just learning, and happened to pick two of the best works by both artists.” He won’t say, though, how many works he now owns by either artist.

He evokes a time in the 1950s and 1960s, his fledgling years, when a European sensibility pervaded the collecting circles of Manhattan. “It was all [driven by] a very European taste. It was also very much part of what the Museum of Modern Art stood for at that time, a European feeling starting from Manet going right through to late Picasso.” This allegiance to MoMA is a constant; Lauder joined the board of trustees at the age of 32 (he is now 69) and is honorary chairman.

French reliquary of St Ursula (c1240)

I ask what will eventually happen to his holdings, and MoMA comes up once more. “I will give my German and Austrian collection to the Neue Galerie, there are pieces that will go obviously to MoMA, and some pieces will stay within the family,” he says. His brother Leonard is committed, however, to the rival Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in April pledged to donate 78 Cubist masterpieces to it.

Yet Ronald remains something of an enigma on the New York art scene, to the extent that one prominent Manhattan-based modern art dealer, who preferred to remain anonymous, says: “Lauder is obviously a very important figure in the art world here, but he is quite secretive. He does not go to many galleries in New York, he does not attend auctions himself nor fairs, although he visited the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht in March.”

But Lauder is surprisingly upfront about his collecting strategies: “I never really bargain,” he says. “If a dealer knows you won’t bargain and you’re looking for the best, they don’t waste your time. We get very few serious offers that are not the best.” With a fortune estimated by Forbes at $3.6bn, he can perhaps afford not to bargain.

Egon Schiele’s ‘Self-Portrait With Arm Twisted Above Head’ (1910)

He says he is not keen on art fairs, and insists that he does not sell works very often. Sweeping his hand across his exquisite office, furnished with desks and lamps by Otto Wagner and Josef Hoffmann that would make most curators of 20th-century design go weak at the knees, he reveals a buying tip that takes me aback: “The other aspect that helps me very much save money is that I will not buy a piece that is not as good as the pieces I have already. You see here two Kokoschkas; I have four, all at the same level. I will not buy a fifth if it’s not the same level. Same with Schiele and Klimt. Same thing with Richter, with [Sigmar] Polke.” Such stringent quality control means that Lauder no doubt bolsters the higher end of the market with his buying choices.

And he has certainly set the bar very high, no more so than when he bought Klimt’s 1907 “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” in June 2006, reportedly for $135m, at the time the highest sum ever paid for a painting. He has never confirmed the price, but The Art Newspaper reported that Lauder shored up his finances in August 2006, receiving $190m in cash through the sale of 49 per cent of his interest in Central European Media Enterprises.

The work was one of five Klimts in the collection of the Austrian National Gallery until early 2006 when an arbitration court ordered that the paintings, seized by the Nazis, be returned to the descendants of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, the Viennese sugar magnate. The niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Maria Altmann, who died in 2011, led the litigation, gained ownership and promptly placed the works on the market. Through his Commission for Art Recovery, Lauder has repeatedly stated that Nazi-looted art should be returned to its rightful owners.

“‘Adele Bloch-Bauer I’ is a great work of art – it’s our ‘Mona Lisa’. It changed the market because at that time it was the first painting to go that high and now there must be half a dozen,” he says.

So what’s left to buy? “There are probably 10 works of art in private hands made in the 19th and 20th century that I don’t have that I want,” Lauder says – and with resolve, he adds: “I remember what’s out there.”

I don’t doubt that one day soon we’ll see some of these works adorning his office.

Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Ave, New York www.neuegalerie.org

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