A German proverb: “Money is dirty, but one has to have it,” came to my mind as I went to see Ronald Lauder’s collection at his museum on Fifth Avenue. As always, the beauty of Beaux Arts mansion that shelters the Neue Galerie is bewitching. Carrere and Hastings, architects of the New York Public Library and the Frick, built the mansion in 1904 for another tycoon. I am thrilled by the diamond pattern of the black and beige marble floors, the curving stairs and their wrought iron banisters, the elegant chandeliers, and the restrained use of a single orchid plant.
To my surprise, I had to pass through a newly installed metal detector at the door, its presence no doubt prompted by the New York Times front page article about Ronald Lauder’s finances.
Acquisitiveness and collecting are widespread human traits and, given that my artistic sensitivities run very close to those of Ronald Lauder, I would have loved to buy what he did. Even though I had actually seen few of the art pieces on view, they felt like old friends. Dozens of small works by Paul Klee, George Grosz, Kandinsky, Otto Dix, and other German Expressionists fill the gallery on the landing of the third floor. This art movement emerged at the beginning of the bloody 20th century and I have always identified with its pain and rawness. An assemblage of Constantin Brancusi’s sleek minimalist sculptures sitting on a platform share the West Gallery with a wall full of Picassos, many dating back to the beginning of his career.
As always, the elegant Adele Bauer Bloch reigns on the second floor. The West Gallery, fronting Central Park, overflows with lavishly ornamented medieval armor as well as number of spectacular Cezanne oils. Here and elsewhere in the mansion, glass vitrines are filled with a mélange of high-end objects—tchatkes if they weren’t art. They include exquisite Limoges enamels, reliquaries, ivory chess figures, and oodles of silver craft objects, produced by the Wiener Werkstaette.
To complete my vacation from everyday concerns, I repair to the Viennese Café Sabarsky, located on the first floor of the mansion, and order a double Einspanner—espresso served in a glass cup filled with whipped cream—and a slice of Klimt Torte—a nine-layer chocolate cake. I sip my coffee, my eyes lazily scanning my hometown’s beloved Central Park, created in 1880 to provide a country-like experience to its underprivileged masses. I think of Serge Sabarsky, the defunct co-founder of Lauder’s museum. He, like me, was a victim of Nazi persecution. He opened a gallery on Madison Avenue, where both Ronald Lauder and I could immerse ourselves in German and Austrian Expressionism. It is here that Lauder started on his shopping spree, while I just as happily collected the beautiful postcards that announced the gallery’s shows.
I emerge on 86th Street, grateful for the oasis created by 0.001 percent of the population. On the crosstown bus I read about the latest unemployment figures, the foreclosed houses, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and I sigh.