Sotheby’s New York headquarters is undergoing an exciting transformation as we prepare to exhibit the legendary collection of A. Alfred Taubman beginning 24 October. View exhibition times and learn more about this once-in-a-lifetime event.


When A. Alfred Taubman died in April 2015, at the age of 91, his passing made headlines around the world. In newspapers from the New York Times to London’s Telegraph, the retail developer’s life story proved irresistible to obituary writers, who relished the chance to retell his only-in-America rise from modest beginnings in Pontiac, Michigan, to a spectacular business career spanning over six decades. Taubman was credited with changing the very way people shopped, whether they belonged to the middle-class ranks who flocked to his innovative shopping malls or were among the storied aristocrats who traded at the highest end of the art market at Sotheby’s, a company that he led for many years.


But in one critical respect, the full story of Alfred Taubman has yet to be told. Quietly, assiduously and over the course of more than 60 years, Taubman assembled one of the greatest collections of art in private hands. For a man who lived much of his life in the glare of the public spotlight, remarkably little was known about the trove of masterpieces hanging in his many homes, from the stately Fifth Avenue apartment and oceanfront estates in Palm Beach and Southampton to the sprawling modernist house that anchored his family life in Michigan. “Alfred didn’t have a lot of people to his apartment,” says Hugh Hildesley, a Sotheby’s executive who was close to Taubman for two decades. “He kept his collection quiet – it wasn’t for show.” Indeed, Taubman often described the works of art he owned as his “very close friends.”

There was tremendous speculation about Taubman’s collection during his lifetime. He was his own curator and bought everything himself – unusual for a collector of his magnitude. He never agreed to a museum exhibition to show off his treasures, nor did he publish a catalogue of his holdings.


“I was vacationing in Sardinia in late summer, just after the announcement that the Taubman collection was being sold at Sotheby’s,” Hildesley recounts. “There were quite a few major collectors whose yachts were docked there, one next to the other, and in the evenings I was asked over and over again, What did he have?

That question is finally being answered through a historic series of auctions at Sotheby’s beginning in November. The Taubman collection is so wide-ranging and substantial that it is being offered across four dedicated sales – encompassing Old Masters, Impressionist and Modern art, Contemporary art and American art – with scores of other wonderful objects, from Egyptian, Roman and Chinese antiquities to Vienna Secessionist furniture, to be sold in various auctions throughout the winter and spring. As a collector, Taubman was eclectic, but so were his business interests, which included the A&W Restaurant chain, department stores, a professional football team and Sotheby’s. He had a brilliant ability to find a path to success in virtually all his endeavours. With characteristic confidence and wit, he once told a Harvard Business School class, “You may find there’s more similarity in the challenge of marketing a precious painting by Degas and a frosted mug of root beer than you ever thought possible.”


Taubman’s brilliance, however, was not obvious from the start. The fourth and youngest child of Fannie and Philip Taubman, German Jews who arrived in the United States during the first decade of the 20th century knowing not a word of English, Alfred suffered from dyslexia, with a childhood stutter to make his struggles that much harder. In his uncompromisingly honest memoir, Threshold Resistance (2007), he describes himself as “big and a bit awkward . . . not the model student.” He went to work at age nine, and by eleven was selling shoes after school in Sims department store on Saginaw Street in Pontiac. What anchored him was his family. “There were two things we always had in abundant supply in our home during those challenging times,” he wrote, “our love and our faith.” His father had built the first synagogue in Pontiac, and Alfred recalls being “part of a small but tightly knit Jewish community.”

Collecting art should be, above all else, fun. Buy what you love (and can afford).

Taubman served in the Pacific Theatre during the Second World War, witnessing first-hand the destruction wrought on Hiroshima. In Tokyo as part of the occupation forces, Alfred sketched Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel – he was thrilled, years later, to meet Wright in person and recount this episode. After returning to the States, he studied art and architecture at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (college was made possible by the G.I. Bill), married Reva Kolodney, his college sweetheart, and went to work for an architect. By 1950 he had started his own business, The Taubman Company, which would design and build retail projects; the venture was launched with a $5,000 loan and he brought his father, a builder, out of retirement to be his partner. If Philip Taubman had any lingering doubts about his son’s talents, they were quickly put to rest. “At the age of 26,” recounts Robert Taubman, Alfred’s elder son, “in his first year of business, my father’s new company earned a profit of $150,000. And that was in 1950 money!” By the end of the decade The Taubman Company had built several major shopping centres in Michigan, and Alfred was poised to expand into the Western US.


On a solid financial footing, Alfred and Reva soon started a family – Gayle was born in 1951, followed by Robert in 1953 and William in 1958 – and in 1961 they moved into a home on Bell Road in Southfield, Michigan, that Alfred designed himself. The Bell Road home had a modernist sensibility, with high white walls designed to showcase the art of the day.

“Throughout the early years of my career, as I made enough money to look beyond the basic needs of my family, my passion for art grew into a pretty substantial art collection,” he wrote in Threshold Resistance. That passion had been ignited in college by his painting instructor, Carlos Lopez. “I loved his course and enjoyed painting very much,” recalled Taubman. At the end of the semester, Lopez gave one of his own artworks to his student. “The wonderful drawing, the first piece of art I ever owned, still hangs in my home.”

For Taubman, the Lopez drawing also represented a path that he might have taken himself. “My father could have been a great artist,” says Gayle, who holds a doctorate in art and education and is now the president of The Taubman Foundation. “He drew, painted, sculpted. Perhaps because of his dyslexia, he had an innovative and remarkable way of seeing the world.” Robert, who with his brother William, now runs The Taubman Company, agrees that dyslexia played a critical role in shaping their father’s life. “The unique thing about him was his eye,” Robert says. “My father thought in three dimensions, which allowed him to conceive of space and understand its possibilities.” Alfred doodled throughout his life, specialising in caricatures and self-portraits that delighted his family and friends. In college, he made money by drawing caricatures on street corners and selling them, but he never seriously considered becoming an artist. Nonetheless, he wrote, “my love of art has blossomed into one of the joys of my life.”

And he realised that love by immersing himself in the world of art and artists. From Threshold Resistance: “In the 1950s, I was a regular visitor to the Green Gallery on West 57th Street in New York, where a rickety elevator took you to the fourth floor. There, dealer Richard Bellamy proudly introduced you to fresh works by the likes of Robert Indiana, Jasper Johns, and Francis Bacon. I started buying modern artists like Frank Stella and Robert Rauschenberg. Later, I bought from Leo Castelli.” He also formed friendships with artists, most notably Robert Graham and John Chamberlain, visiting them in their studios and buying their works. Years later, with his characteristic sense of humour, Taubman remarked, “I had this notion that I should buy living artists, because the dead ones couldn’t use the money.”


During the 1960s, The Taubman Company flourished, based in part on its founder’s understanding of people and his insights about how America’s growing car culture was transforming cities and suburbs – he recognised that “people shop where they live, not necessarily where they work.” And so he built shopping centres near the houses that were springing up in rings around established urban areas. Taubman was an innovator, creating enclosed malls of unprecedented scale and introducing critical design features that made it easier for shoppers to move through the spaces. He also invented new customer-friendly features such as the food court and, notably, he commissioned museum-quality art to “enliven the space,” as he put it. According to Malcolm Gladwell, writing in The New Yorker, “If [20th-century architect] Victor Gruen invented the mall, Alfred Taubman perfected it.”

At the core of Taubman’s business philosophy was the belief that success could be achieved in almost any situation by surmounting a powerful force that he termed “threshold resistance” – “the physical and psychological barriers” that may block a potential customer from entering a store, engaging with merchandise or completing a transaction. To succeed at almost anything, he wrote, “you have to look beyond immediate barriers and see opportunities.” And indeed he did, in business and in collecting.

I don’t buy art to fit some wall. I buy art I’m pleased with.

The first of The Taubman Company’s many West Coast projects was Southland, the first enclosed mall in northern California, which opened in 1964. Sunvalley, touted as “the world’s largest air-conditioned shopping centre,” opened in the San Francisco Bay area in 1967. During this period, Alfred was spending a lot of his time in California, which led him to develop an interest in the art scene there and befriend several artists. Soon he acquired works by Ed Moses, Richard Diebenkorn and John McLaughlin, the pioneering Minimalist.


Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Taubman travelled extensively but always made time to visit museums and galleries, often bringing his children. Says William: “I can remember going to New York with my father and driving with him in a big black limousine through the rutted streets of SoHo. We would go to Castelli on West Broadway and have lunch at Oh Ho So, the Chinese restaurant where all the gallery owners would eat. They all knew my father. He had a lot of personality, and they enjoyed him. He would go to every exhibition and ask lots of questions.”

In 1978, Taubman happened to be in Paris with William during the opening weekend of the Centre Pompidou, whose revolutionary architecture by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers literally turned the museum building inside out. “He loved it,” recalls William. “We spent the whole day in the plaza, and he just marvelled at how the museum had taken an area that was a backwater of Paris and made it into a place where people wanted to come.” Taubman was so taken with the design, especially the signature escalator tube running up the exterior of the building, that he copied the feature, applying it to the exterior of the Beverly Center, a luxury mall he was then developing in Los Angeles. That escalator “became the icon of the building,” says William. “It was considered amazing at the time that someone would incorporate a museum feature in the design of a shopping centre."

By the late 1970s, Taubman’s business had reached a new level, and one success begat another. His portfolio of businesses grew more diverse, and came to include the Irvine Ranch in California and A&W Restaurants, which he bought in 1982, turning the root beer-based franchise into a national success. Along the way, he acquired the Woodward and Lothrop and Wanamaker’s department store chains and led an owners’ group that founded the United States Football League’s Michigan Panthers.  

In 1983, Taubman’s personal life changed significantly when he married Judith Rounick. His stunning business successes now afforded him a lifestyle that could only have seemed a fantasy to a dyslexic Jewish boy growing up in the Great Depression. Taubman had given up the house on Bell Road and moved in to a larger residence in Bloomfield Hills designed by Alden B. Dow, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright. The pace of Taubman’s collecting was picking up, and he set about changing the house to make it more hospitable to the large-scale works he was acquiring. “He expanded the common areas,” says Robert, “and brought skylights in so there was natural light.” The density of great art was staggering. “You would enter the dining room and be met by duelling Rothkos, a Franz Kline and a Pollock.”


In New York, he lived in a Richard Meier-designed residence in the Pierre Hotel before settling into a grand apartment at 834 Fifth Avenue, which he purchased from the daughter of his great friend Henry Ford II. And in Palm Beach, he commissioned one of Meier’s most celebrated residences, Le Bateau, the first multilevel contemporary house on the island. There, Taubman installed works by Arp, Calder and Léger, which he playfully mixed with Chinese ceramics, Egyptian antiquities and early 20th-century furniture.

Famously, the beautiful Meier house’s roof was leaky, and following his marriage to Judy, Taubman purchased another house in Palm Beach, a 1924 Mediterranean mansion designed by Addison Mizner. The art in the Palm Beach house was a perfect expression of his philosophy: “Collecting art should be, above all else, fun. Buy what you love (and can afford).” While the Meier home was primarily a showcase for modern art, the Mizner house reflected the quickly evolving tastes of a confident collector, a connoisseur with the means to acquire quality works that captivated him. “I don’t buy art to fit some wall,” he remarked. “I buy art I’m pleased with.” In the garden, a monumental Egyptian statue once owned by John Lennon stood guard; Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Page (the twin of the famous Blue Boy) could enter into a dialogue with Ingres’s Portrait of Charles Dupaty; and Martin Heade’s The Great Florida Sunset, one of the greatest 19th-century American landscape paintings in private hands, formed a fascinating juxtaposition to the contemporaneous Game of Bowls by John Singer Sargent. And several of the many stunning Egon Schieles he owned were hung in groupings with smaller works by Picasso, Tiepolo and Klimt.


By the 1980s, Taubman had been a serious collector for more than three decades, and he was now a board member of the Whitney Museum of American Art (where, in 1980, he provided funds toward the famous purchase of Jasper Johns’s Three Flags), a founder of the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art and a major patron of the Detroit Institute of Arts. While motivated by a strong philanthropic ethos, Taubman’s involvement with these institutions put him in continual contact with the greatest curators, directors and collectors, feeding his insatiable desire to learn more about art. 


As a collector, Taubman was often attracted to works with astonishing provenance, like the Degas pastel that had debuted at Ambroise Vollard’s legendary Paris gallery, a Toulouse-Lautrec oil once handled by the dealer Paul Rosenberg; a Manet that had ended up in the collection of Mrs. Payne Whitney via the Galerie Durand-Ruel and a Matisse that he purchased from the estate of Henry Ford II. His tremendous connoisseurship was acknowledged by museums the world over as they sought loans for major exhibitions. “My father loved to lend,” says William. “And he lent a lot.” To name a few examples: Modigliani’s superb portrait of Paulette Jourdain to the Royal Academy in London, Manet’s Madame du Paty to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, a major Matisse to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, a Winslow Homer to the National Gallery in Washington, DC, a Miró to the historic Museum of Modern Art retrospective, and on and on.

In 1983, Taubman made his most famous acquisition – Sotheby’s. Brought in as a “white knight” during a less than genteel takeover battle, he recognised great potential in the beleaguered company. As he saw it, “There was a powerful force keeping individuals out of the auction rooms and holding Sotheby’s back from dramatically increasing its business and market share: threshold resistance . . . . Unless you were a dealer or a duke, stepping over the threshold of a major auction house took real courage and self-confidence. I believed that if we could break down the threshold resistance, the auction business could be transformed into a far broader, more profitable enterprise.” In short order, he assembled a group of investors to purchase the centuries-old auction house.

The Sotheby’s purchase allowed Taubman to pull all the different strands of his life together into one grand enterprise; he was the conductor of his own orchestra and also played the various parts brilliantly. For close to two decades, Taubman set about changing the way the 239-year-old company did business. To begin, he considered his own experience as a client. “Even though I was a good customer, an avid collector, and financially well-off,” he wrote, the auction house representatives “were rude, unresponsive, and often condescending.” With the laser-sharp focus he had developed on the customer, he turned Sotheby’s culture around and demanded that every person who entered the auction house be treated with respect and care. He deftly applied his retail-design experience, transforming Sotheby’s New York flagship into an airy, modernist building in which people could move easily from floor to floor and interact with beautifully presented merchandise. “I wanted to create an open feeling, where all the goods were available to everyone.”

He introduced new financing and marketing techniques, staging what he described as “high-profile, unapologetically glamorous celebrity sales” such as the jewels owned by the Duchess of Windsor (1987), the vast collection of cookie jars and other objects amassed by Andy Warhol (1988) and beloved treasures from the estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1996). In just seven years, his changes led to a fivefold increase in auction sales; by the 1989–90 season, the house conducted $3.2 billion in sales. This staggering rise was due largely to the new participation from individuals – who joined the dealers in the saleroom – that Taubman’s changes made possible. 

There’s more similarity a precious painting by Degas and a frosted mug of root beer than you ever thought possible.

His innovations at Sotheby’s were quickly adopted by Christie’s and the other houses, and the auction world today is largely the one that Alfred Taubman created. “We changed the art market forever,” he rightly observed in 2008, “and for the better.”


Taubman stayed connected to the company long after he left it in 2000 at the age of 77. He lived fifteen more years, using his substantial fortune to support many major causes, primarily in education, art and medicine. The impact of his tzedakah, or “righteous giving,” lives on in such institutions as The A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute at the University of Michigan, The A. Alfred Taubman Center of State and Local Government at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, The A. Alfred Taubman European Paintings Wing at the Detroit Institute of Arts; the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and many other great cultural, civic, educational and medical programs. “You can leave the world a better place,” he remarked, “if you figure out how to make things better, not just different, but better.”

To the very end, Taubman was an avid collector. “My father loved buying art,” says Robert. “He loved living with these objects.” That he already had four homes overfilled with masterpiece large and small didn’t strike him as a reason to stop acquiring: In February 2015, just after his 91st birthday, Taubman bought four paintings from a Sotheby’s auction of Modern and Impressionist art. In April, they arrived at his Bloomfield Hills home, but he hadn’t yet figured out where to hang them. On 17 April, surrounded by his family and his art, he suffered a heart attack and died.

The paintings he had bought two months earlier remained in their crates, and in November they will return to Sotheby’s. There, along with 500 or so other treasures collected over a lifetime, they will change hands again, in the auction house he reinvented. “These works of art were all really loved by my father,” says Gayle. “They were part of our life with him. And now it is time for them to have other homes.”

Anthony Calnek is Editor in Chief of Sotheby’s magazine.

The Legendary Collection of A. Alfred Taubman will be on view beginning 24 October at Sotheby’s New York

Lead image: Frank Stella’s Delaware Crossing, 1961, is the backdrop for a 1969 Henry Moore bronze. Photography © Steven Brooke Studios