Leonard Lauder’s passion for art started young

As an art buff, I love knowing how serious collectors get started. Leonard Lauder started with postcards and later he graduated to movies—that is, before his interest blossomed into a world-renowned collection of paintings.

As a boy, Lauder spent his first pennies on postcards that caught his eye, according to a 2012 story in The New Yorker. He told The New Yorker writer that his life-long interest in postcards has amassed 125,000 cards! This collection was a gateway to the visual arts for young Lauder—and, today, is of serious historical importance, as well. Lauder is credited by the New York Public Library (NYPL) with preserving a priceless window into American culture from 1898-to-the-1920s when he donated that huge segment of his collection to the NYPL. (You can explore those images via this NYPL online portal to Lauder’s postcard collection.)

Now known as one of the world’s great collectors, Lauder grew up during the Depression. When he entered first grade, he recalls, every member of his class had to bring in five cents to open a savings account at a bank. “I kept adding over the years—no withdrawals, only deposits.” His savings, plus those of his parents, funded Estee Lauder, of which Leonard is now chairman emeritus.

Later, as a young man, Lauder attended classic movies at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. After, he said, in the galleries he enjoyed “the great pleasure of savouring a picture again and again and making it mine.”

Last year, at age 80, Lauder donated his Cubist collection to the Met in New York. His first Cubist purchase, in 1980, was “Carafe and Candlestick” by Picasso. In time, he says, the painting “was getting lonely all by itself, so I looked to see what else was available.” He spotted another Picasso, “The Scallop Shell,” once owned by major Chicago collectors Leigh and Mary Block. “I didn’t fully understand the painting at the time, other than to know it was great.”

Contemporary art’s not easy. An open mind and a receptivity to challenge are key to appreciating it. In time Lauder attended a lecture by Kirk Varnedoe, curator at MoMA. On the screen flashed an image of his Scallop Shell painting. As Varnedoe spoke, “It was an epiphany for me; buried in each of these Cubist paintings were hidden meanings, thoughts and history… The time I spent in that lecture room was probably the most valuable hour or two of my art-collecting life.”

Lauder did his homework. “When I decided to focus on Cubism, I got every book I could lay my hands on… and read them again and again.” In reading those books and catalogs, he paid special attention to a work that said “private collection.” If it did, he says, it “meant that someday it might come my way. If it did, I’d be ready for it.”

Lauder’s promised gift of more than 80 works by Picasso, Braque, Gris and Leger is on display at the Met until February 16. The full interview about the origins of the collection is included in the exhibition’s catalog.

I had the treat of meeting Estee Lauder (Leonard’s mother) and Charles Revson, founder of Revlon, when I was a fashion journalist more than 40 years ago. They came to Michigan for the opening of Bonwit Teller (now Neiman Marcus) at Somerset Mall. I was warned that the two were arch rivals, and, indeed, they did steer clear of each other.

How lucky we all are that the Lauder family has been so astute and is so generous. I plan to remember that the next time I’m looking for mascara.

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