Armor and the Man


Photographs of the elaborate dinner parties that Estée Lauder, the founder of the international cosmetics empire, gave at her imposing town house on New York’s Upper East Side provide glimpses of celebrities and socialites seated at tables elegantly laid with crystal glassware, fine porcelain and silver. Entertaining at this address is likely no less elegant now that it’s the home of Estée’s younger son, Ronald. However, visitors may be in for a shock. Crossing the black-and-white marble checkerboard floor of the entrance hall they are soon face-to-face with a life-size replica of a knight and charger both in full panoply. What could be more contrary, you might think, to the soft-skinned feminine beauty promised by Estée Lauder’s potions? But the finest armor is also beautiful. Indeed that is one reason why Ronald Lauder collects it.

Although he’s a distinguished businessman and former ambassador to Austria, not to mention the current chairman emeritus of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Lauder, 64, may be best known as a prodigious collector of modern art. Since his teens, he has been strongly attracted to the paintings, sculptures and furnishings of fin-de-siècle Vienna, a hotbed of modernism. It was his desire to share his enthusiasm with a wider public that led Lauder in 2001 to open the small but peerless Neue Galerie of German and Austrian Art just a few blocks from the Metropolitan Museum. Among its treasures is Gustav Klimts famous 1907 portrait of the Viennese beauty Adele Bloch-Bauer, which Lauder bought in 2006 for a reported $135 million, a record price for a painting at the time.

Not so well known is that Lauder is also fascinated by medieval and Renaissance armor. In fact, he has amassed what is generally considered the best private collection of such military arms and armor in the world. It includes whole suits, like those worn by Lauder’s horse and rider, as well as individual pieces, from helmets to chamfrons, the protective headpiece worn by a knight’s mount. The chamfron on the steed that greets visitors to the house has a spike sticking straight out from between the eye coverings, a potentially lethal and certainly scary variation on a unicorn’s horn.

On a table in the parlor, two shirts of mail are on display. One of them, made from two different sizes of links and resembling a chic little cape held by four silver clasps, belonged to a bishop. The other, with its open collar, short sleeves and lack of decoration, seems rough and ready for action. Flanking the table are two suits of armor; the one on the left is Italian, circa 1610, embellished with bold diagonals that prefigure Italian Futurism. Behind the table hangs a mellow 12-by-13-foot early 15th-century French tapestry of woodcutters at work. Nearby, medieval painted statues stand on pedestals. Together, all these pieces create a harmonious and richly evocative atmosphere.

Armor is displayed at some of Lauder’s other homes, too, while an undisclosed number of his pieces are on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a room in the arms and armor galleries has been named for him. He has also given or contributed to the purchase of pieces in the museum’s permanent collection. Among these is a winning blue and gilded embossed escutcheon, made in Germany between 1525 and 1555. It is shaped like a rather imperious woman, her head held high, a gold necklace around her neck, and in front of her chest an intricately gilded shield. Again, we see art centuries in advance of its supposed introduction: This shield in the form of a person holding a shield anticipates postmodernism by half a millennium. Another extraordinary Met acquisition made possible by a Lauder donation is a highly decorated steel morion, a type of helmet that swoops upward both in front and in back. Made in Germany in 1566, the piece is intricately etched with many lively scenes, among them a horse and rider engaged in armed combat. The elegance of the work and the inventiveness of its imagery indicate that a very fine artist was involved in its creation.

Much of Lauder’s collection comes from medieval and Renaissance Italy and France, where the best craftsmen of the day were based. “The earliest piece I have was made in 1360,” he says. “That is very, very early.” Of course, armor was worn by the ancients long before. But much of it was leather, with helmets and breastplates crafted of very heavy bronze. “Pure Western armor—a helmet worn with a mail shirt—starts in the 13th century,” says Howard J. Ricketts, a London-based art consultant who specializes in this area and is Lauder’s longtime agent. “After that came armor made of metal plate—first iron, then steel.” The latest piece in Lauder’s collection was produced in 1610. By then tremendous advances had been made in the manufacture of relatively accurate handheld firearms, against which even steel plates offered insufficient protection. As more of these weapons were introduced, the production of armor tapered off.

There is nothing eccentric about appreciating the visual splendor of armor, nor in proclaiming it a work of art. “The hierarchy we have of painting, sculpture, architecture never existed in the Renaissance,” says Stuart Pyhrr, the Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Curator of the Met’s department of arms and armor. “A great patron would spend more for a goldsmith’s work than for a painting by a famous artist. The value of objects in the Renaissance was determined by materials—[and those] used in arms and armor [were] very costly.” Giulio Romano and Hans Holbein the Younger were among the many painters who also designed armor. It was considered art then, and so it is now by connoisseurs like Ronald Lauder.

“Great armor was made by the sculptors who were the Brancusi or the David Smith of the time,” Pyhrr explains. “There is the same flow of line, the same understanding of material.” Like Renaissance princes, Lauder makes no distinction between fine and decorative art. “I am fascinated particularly by forms of art that are three-dimensional,” he says, “be they sculpture or armor or furniture or paintings with tactile surfaces. I am as interested in a 15th-century statue as I am in a 20th-century table. It is all part of the same thing.”

Lauder was in his mid-20s, working as an assistant sales manager at Estée Lauder, when he was introduced to the art of armor by the late Stephen V. Grancsay, formerly the curator of arms and armor at the Met. (During World War II, Grancsay helped design a combat helmet for the U.S. Army; he created an aluminum model of it that is now part of the Met’s armor collection, using tools that had originally been crafted for Napoléon IIIs armorer.) The first direct result of Grancsay’s meeting with Lauder came a month later, when the collector saw a helmet made in Nuremberg in 1515. “I looked at it and realized it had all the excitement and beauty of the paintings I was buying at the time,” he says. He acquired it and brought it to his office. “I had just purchased a small Barnett Newman painting, and together they had power,” Lauder recalls. His next acquisition was a shirt of mail. And on he went.

Broadly speaking, armor falls into two categories: parade armor, which was made for show, and field armor, designed for battle. The latter, for obvious reasons, is much scarcer. Parade armor, like coronation robes, was kept in royal treasuries. Although Lauder collects both types, he prefers pieces worn in the field. “It is more real,” he says. The marks left by blows from a combatant are not perceived as imperfections that lower the object’s value but as evidence of use which enhance it.

Whether made to wear at festivals or in battle, armor was a symbol of power. Kings and knights went to war to gain or defend it; they appeared elaborately suited at festivals to advertise it to their subjects, rivals and enemies alike. They also impressed its importance on their heirs at an early age.

“People used to tell me that men were short in the Middle Ages and Renaissance,” Lauder says, “because some of this armor is four feet high. But the real story is that a boy growing up in a castle would be measured for his first suit of armor when he was very young.”

Pyhrr claims that such a boy might be as young as four or five. The intention, he says, “was to transform him into a future commander in chief. Image was very important.” (Plus ça change …) By the time the boy reached adulthood, he was accustomed to moving around encased in metal and could do so with agility. (A full suit of Renaissance armor is said to be no heavier than the 60 or so pounds of protective gear today’s soldiers wear.)

All this talk of boys and men, power and war makes a person wonder: Is armor just an expensive toy for overgrown adolescents? Curators, scholars and collectors all seem to have been fascinated by weaponry as lads. Lauder himself collected antique firearms as a teenager. He, however, cautions against making simplistic assumptions about the allure of arms and armor.

“It is part of growing up to play war, to play with toy guns,” he acknowledges. “But the collection of armor is a very serious thing; it has nothing to do with what children do. To claim it does would be like saying that because children make drawings with crayons, they grow up to become collectors of design masterpieces. Armor is an aesthetic form. I am not about to go out into battle with my armor anymore than someone who has many religious paintings is going to start a church.”

Is there a particular item in the collection that holds a special place in his heart?

“That is like asking, ‘Which is your favorite dog?’ ” he replies. “I love them all. Each piece is special to me. Some of the armor I bought when I was in my 20s is not as important as some of the pieces I bought recently, but I am very emotional about it.” As he turns over the question, however, one particular memory occurs to him.

“I have [a suit of] Greenwich armor … that is very rare,” he begins. The Royal Armory at Greenwich, founded by Henry VIII, was known for extraordinary craftsmanship and design. Lauder’s magnificent blue and gold suit was ordered early in the 17th century by Henry Prince of Wales, son of King James I, as a gift for his not yet adult German cousin, the Duke of Brunswick. Although recorded in the literature, it was thought to have been destroyed in World War II. But in 1981, it turned up in London at a Christie’s arms-and-armor sale, consigned by a European noble family—an important point, since its non-U.K. provenance meant it could not be blocked from export as a national treasure. Word got around, and bidding was keen, with the Royal Armouries taking part. But Ricketts, acting for Lauder, won the suit for £418,000 ($791,274), nearly twice its estimate and an auction record for armor. It took a craftsman two years to clean it, working inch by inch using a tiny needlelike tool. This, of course, added quite a bit to its cost.

As splendid as it was, the suit was not quite complete, missing the gauntlets that would have protected its wearer’s hands. Then a happy accident occurred. At the Met one day, Lauder saw the gauntlets in a case. Because of his long-standing relationship with the department, he was allowed to borrow them. “For the first time in 150 years, the complete suit of armor was reunited,” he reports with evident joy.

Lauder has bought most of the armor in his collection privately. And, like all passionate collectors, he is always seeking more. But as with the best Old Master paintings, fewer examples of truly fine work are available now than when he first started collecting. Many pieces have ended up in museums not likely to deaccession. “[The armor] is tied to the history of the countries where it is on view,” Lauder explains. What he can’t hope to own, he visits. On his seemingly constant flights to foreign countries and capitals, he makes time in his overcrowded schedule to tour the great museum collections, notably those in Vienna, Madrid and Dresden. “I meet with the curator and visit the armor,” says Lauder. “My trouble is when to stop talking. There is always more to learn.”  

"Armor and the Man" originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's December 2008 Table of Contents.