$1bn gift of cubist art to transform New York's Met

Cosmetics heir and heavy-weight philanthropist Leonard A Lauder has donated 78 pieces to the museum
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Privileged residents of New York City – and the tourists who besiege it – will soon have a significant new present to unwrap, namely a billion-dollar trove of paintings from the Cubist era donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by the cosmetics heir and heavy-weight philanthropist Leonard A Lauder.

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It might be hard to imagine an institution such as the Met, the largest art museum in the western hemisphere, being transformed by a single gift. Yet that will be the impact of the shipments that have already started to arrive from the private vaults of Mr Lauder.  In all, he has promised to hand over 78 Cubist pieces to the museum, including 33 works by Pablo Picasso and 17 by Georges Braques.

The collection, valued by Forbes at over $1bn, which will go on show for the first time in autumn 2014, is “unsurpassed in the number of masterpieces and iconic works critical to the development of Cubism”, the museum said. The gift is sparking particular curatorial delight because Cubism, which ushered in the wider period of abstract painting, has until now been underrepresented on the Met’s walls.

“This is a gift to the people who live and work in New York, and those from around the world who come to visit our great arts institutions,” Mr Lauder, who is also funding a research institute into modern art at the Met, said in a brief news release.

The acquisition is also a major catch for the director of the Met, Thomas Campbell, who is English. Mr Lauder – whose younger brother Ronald Lauder is also a renowned collector and the founder of the Neue Galerie on New York City’s Upper East Side, devoted to Austrian and German work including some notable pieces by Gustav Klimt – had been mulling over where to send his collection for years.

“This is an extraordinary gift to our museum and our city,” Mr Campbell, who lived in Cambridge before moving to America, noted. He acknowledged that the institution he took over in 2008 had “long lacked this critical dimension in the story of modernism”. 

With the Lauder paintings, it may now eclipse the Cubist collections of the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art also in New York.

“Now, Cubism will be represented with some of its greatest masterpieces, demonstrating both its role as the ground-breaking movement of the 20th century and the foundation for an artistic dialogue that continues today,” Mr Campbell said.

“In one fell swoop this puts the Met at the forefront of early-20th-century art… It is an un-reproducible collection, something museum directors only dream about.”

Highlights in the collection include Picasso’s Woman in an Armchair (Eva), (1913), featuring an erotic rendering of the painter’s mistress Eva Gouel, and The Oil Mill (1909). There are works also from the very beginnings of the European Cubist movement, including Trees at L’Estaque by Braque as well as Terrace at the Hotel Mistral, L’Estaque (1907) by the same painter.

That Mr Lauder chose the Met over other museums is not surprising, given that New York is his home.  He has long sat on a number of committees at the Met, though he is better known as the one-time chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

“Whenever I’ve given something to a museum, I’ve wanted it to be transformative,” Mr Lauder told The New York Times. “This wasn’t a bidding war. I went knocking, and the door opened easily.”