At night the Plaza Hotel glows like a megayacht on the high seas. On the seventh floor, one sparkling row of windows stretches the entire block, overlooking Central Park’s treetops, Fifth Avenue, and the fountain in the center of Grand Army Plaza. For years those in the know could look up through those windows and glimpse works by Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, and Jackson Pollock hanging on the walls—a collection of masterpieces resting comfortably in their castle.
Bought over five decades by real estate tycoon Harry Macklowe and his wife Linda, this world class art collection used to greet prominent guests at exclusive cocktail parties. It was a setting that once inspired a major museum benefactor to turn to her billionaire husband and exclaim, “And I thought we were rich!”
But in 2016 the Macklowes called it quits. After 57 years, Harry left Linda for a younger woman, and Linda filed for the divorce. The ensuing legal battle was so bitter it kept the octogenarians in the public eye for five years, as the courts tried to work out how to split an array of assets worth close to $2 billion, ranging from Israeli bonds to Unfurled, a $23 million boat. Now it has come to this: The treasures are being sold to the highest bidder at Sotheby’s in a two-part auction; the first 35 lots brought in $676 million in a blockbuster November 15 sale, and the rest of the collection is set to go to auction in May 2022.
The Macklowe divorce is only the most public and acrimonious among recent billionaire split-ups. In May, Melinda Gates said in court papers that her 27-year marriage with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates was “irrevocably broken.” In September hedge fund manager John Paulson surprised his wife of 21 years by filing for divorce and taking up with a much younger Instagram nutritionist.
Endless ink has been spilled on the Macklowe saga’s every twist and turn. In 2019 the New York Post’s cover trumpeted “The Height of Spite” after Harry plastered a 42-foot-tall billboard of himself and his new wife, Patricia Landeau, on a Park Avenue building where the two exes owned apartments.
Divorce is one of “the three Ds” that feed auction houses with material for sales (death and debt being the other two). In most cases artworks aren’t designated as divorce casualties, of course, unless the collection is of great value, a lifetime achievement. The Macklowe collection is that kind of event, the sale of the year, and a grand public finale to their union. “A lot of people are under the impression that once people get to a certain age it’s like, ‘What’s the point?’ ” says attorney Jacqueline Newman, who specializes in high-net-worth matrimonial cases at Berkman Bottger Newman & Schein (and isn’t involved in the Macklowe case). “With people living longer, they take an approach that they don’t want to die next to this person.”
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the Macklowe divorce is that the couple’s biggest asset was not their substantial real estate holdings—which include the Plaza apartment, a house in East Hampton, and equity interest in a handful of Manhattan landmarks—but their artworks. A group of 65 paintings and sculptures is expected to fetch more than $600 million at Sotheby’s, which is offering the works in two batches over six months, the first on November 15. (Alberto Giacometti’s Le Nez, a haunting 1964 bronze that depicts a head with a disproportionately long nose suspended in a cagelike structure, is estimated to sell for between $70 million and $90 million.)
The sales promise to be a watershed moment for the art market, especially its top level, which has been hit hard by the pandemic. The Macklowe collection has the highest presale estimate of any single collection at auction to date, surpassing even that of David and Peggy Rockefeller, whose collection had a low estimate of $484 million at Christie’s in 2018 (it ultimately realized $835 million). Years in the making—delayed by Linda’s legal appeals as well as the Covid-19 pandemic—the Macklowe auction arrives at a perfect moment, according to Brooke Lampley, Sotheby’s chairman and worldwide head of sales for global fine art. “The market has felt hungry for quality, and this collection meets that hunger,” Lampley says. “It’s an incredibly calibrated collection, with artists represented in depth. None of the works is redundant. They come from different periods and are emblematic of a particular stage in the artist’s career. They are all masterpieces.”
Linda and Harry Macklowe were 20 and 21 years old, respectively, when they married, in 1959. Both came from middle-class Jewish families, and neither had significant assets entering the marriage. Harry was a college dropout who founded Macklowe Properties in the mid-1960s and turned it into one of the city’s largest real estate empires. In 2003 he bought the General Motors building for $1.4 billion, a record price at the time. In 2008 he was forced to sell his crown jewel to avoid bankruptcy during the financial crisis, though Macklowe Properties still owns 432 Park Avenue, a 96-story tower billed as the “tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere,” and the landmark Art Deco tower at 1 Wall Street.
Linda grew up going to New York City museums and the Art Students League. In the late 1970s she curated sculpture exhibitions at Wave Hill in Riverdale and in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza, just north of the United Nations. She went on to become a trustee of the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Guild Hall in East Hampton.
The Macklowes began investing in art early in their marriage, acquiring superlative works by key artists and watching their values rise exponentially. They spent weekends visiting art galleries and developing relationships with dealers and artists. (Representatives for both Linda and Harry Macklowe declined to comment, referring questions to Sotheby’s. The couple’s adult children, William Macklowe and Liz Swig, also declined to comment.)
“Linda was the driving force in the collection,” says Paul Gray, owner of the Richard Gray galleries in Chicago and New York. “She was in the gallery almost every day for a long time. She’s very inquisitive, curious, dogged in chasing great work.”
The gallery sold her pieces by Willem de Kooning, Gerhard Richter, Donald Judd, and Cy Twombly. Linda was particularly close with Andrew Fabricant, then director of Richard Gray’s New York branch, who had previously worked with her at Gagosian Gallery. “He used to talk with her every day, sometimes three times before lunch,” Gray says. “I don’t think she made any important art decisions without consulting Andrew.”
In 2018 Fabricant left Richard Gray and returned to Gagosian, where his wife Laura Paulson runs the gallery’s advisory services; she has been advising Linda on art matters during the divorce. Harry’s adviser is Tobias Meyer, a private dealer and former Sotheby’s star auctioneer. Harry admired and supported his wife’s ambition to build a first class collection, but he wasn’t that focused on it, according to Gray. “My impression was that the collection was largely her passion, and he indulged it and enjoyed seeing the collection develop,” he says.
Another of Linda’s art confidants was Arne Glimcher, co-founder of Pace Gallery, who has been friends with the Macklowes for 40 years. The two families were interested in sailing and from time to time went on boat trips together. Glimcher also sold her a lot of art, including two Rothko paintings in the 1980s.
For Linda, being a collector was an occupation, Glimcher says. “Making the collection was an everyday career, just as a lawyer goes to work.” Linda developed an eye for historic material, and she was prescient about new artists, he says. She was an early supporter of Jeff Koons and Bruce Nauman as well as German artists Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke.
Splitting up the 165-piece collection has been painful for Linda, according to people who know her, but she has had no choice. The mistrustful spouses each chose an art expert to value the holdings, and those valuations varied drastically on many items. For example, one of the appraisers valued Pollock’s Number 17 at $35 million, while another pegged it at $15 million. In the case of 65 works, the spread between the valuations was so great that the court had no choice but to order their sale at auction. The proceeds will be split equally between Linda and Harry. “Anytime you’re dealing with art, as much as it is a financial asset, there usually are very strong ties emotionally,” says Newman, the matrimonial attorney. “It’s not simply splitting the bank account. Some people view artworks as their children.”
The judge gave the warring exes three years to sell the collection and appointed a third-party administrator, known as a receiver, to oversee the dispersal. That person was Michael Findlay, a highly respected art dealer and author. Findlay invited Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips to submit their pitches early in 2020, but soon the pandemic hit, and the process was put on hold. It resumed earlier this year, and Sotheby’s won by offering a higher guarantee and a more sophisticated technological platform, according to people familiar with the matter. At press time, highlights from the collection are touring the globe, with stops in Hong Kong, Taipei, London, Paris, Los Angeles, and New York.
The main wall in the Plaza apartment displayed Rothko’s No. 7 (1951), an eight-foot-tall abstract canvas with a central yellow square framed by pink and orange rectangles. Sotheby’s estimate is between $70 million and $90 million. It has been almost a decade since the auction record for a Rothko, $86.9 million, was established for a vibrant painting from the collection of David Pincus.
Another power wall held the 18-foot-wide Untitled by Cy Twombly, which depicts dripping flowerlike masses of red on pale green. Painted in 2007, it was estimated at $40 million to $60 million. It will be the first work from Twombly’s monumental flower series to hit the auction block, testing the artist’s standing record of $70.5 million. In May, Sotheby’s will offer another Rothko, a dark, square canvas from 1960 with a black, maroon, and cobalt palette. It’s estimated at $35 million to $50 million.
Richter’s atmospheric Seestück (Seascape), from 1975, is estimated at $25 million to $35 million. The Macklowes bought the 10-foot-wide canvas from Anthony Meier Fine Arts in San Francisco in 1998, six years after the work failed to sell at Christie’s in London with a low estimate of $309,000.
Seen together, these works made an unforgettable impression on those who visited the apartment. Some were awed by the grandeur, with walls of windows facing one of the most touristy locations in New York City. Some were perplexed. “There’s nothing homey about it,” one visitor says. “It was so beautiful, so elegant, almost museum-like. But I cannot imagine waking up, putting a robe on, and walking over to the kitchen to make coffee.”
An acquaintance who has known the family for years notes that the place wasn’t designed to be comfortable. “They are not cozy people,” the person says. “Linda Macklowe is not Martha Stewart, the homemaker.” But Glimcher says all of the couple’s apartments have been minimal. “That was always their taste: extreme modernism,” he says.
In 2007 the Macklowes paid $60 million for seven condos at the Plaza and hired the late architect Charles Gwathmey to combine them into one 14,000-square-foot apartment. It had a master bedroom with views of Central Park, an open kitchen, and a sprawling gallery filled with museum-quality art on immense walls.
During the divorce proceedings, the appraisals of the apartment varied as drastically as those of the artworks. Linda’s expert valued it at $55 million, Harry’s at $107 million. The court settled on $72 million and allowed Linda to keep it.
The couple collected art for a variety of reasons. It was the thing to do among New York’s top, tough real estate developers of that generation, people like Sheldon Solow, William Mack, and Donald Zucker. Art was also an investment that looked great in the vast lobbies of their vast buildings. And also, people say, when you get bit by the art bug, you get bit. “Linda’s motivation was excellence,” Glimcher says, “and that’s what the collection turned out to be.”
Others have a less charitable take. “It was an ego trip in many respects,” says a longtime friend of the family. “They got a lot of attention by throwing their money into the art market. They had capital to deploy, and they deployed it well.”
The couple’s long-term vision for the collection—whether they would establish a private foundation or give it all to a museum—was never entirely clear. Sotheby’s Lampley says that the collection was never intended to be sold, but she admits she doesn’t know what the Macklowes’ plans were. “The collection was so much a living process that I don’t think they dealt with that,” Glimcher says. Selling so many works of such high caliber presents a challenge also because there are many examples by the same artists. To maximize value, Sotheby’s decided to split the collection into two sales six months apart.
“It’s not like they were going to give it to the Museum of Modern Art or another museum, the Guggenheim, to establish the Macklowe Center for Excellence,” says one insider, who asked not to be named because they socialize with the Macklowes. “It was always about them. They did assemble a great art collection—and what’s going to end up is that they lose the art collection because of ego and inability to cooperate with each other. It’s being sold by the judge because they couldn’t divide it themselves.”
This story appears in the December 2021/January 2022 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
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