Leonor Fini works among the treasures for sale of an extraordinary New York house | Art

For more than four decades, New York gallery owner Neil Zukerman and his husband, Tom Shivers, filled their Chelsea loft with paintings, books, ceramics, glassware, figurines, silk flowers and countless other treasures. “We only ever had things in our house that we liked. And if we liked it, we found a place for it,” Shivers said.

But after Zukerman died at the age of 81 last year, Shivers decided to sell part of the couple’s extraordinary collection, including 90 works by Leonor Fini, the 20th century artist famous for his depictions powerful and erotic women.

The first of 10 sales of the couple’s collection will take place online from Thursday, alongside an exhibition of works by Fini and other female artists at Sotheby’s galleries in London. “Neil loved Fini’s art and always said if owning one is good, owning 100 is better,” Shivers said.

Fini – born in Argentina in 1907, raised in Italy and later resident in Paris – was perhaps the most fiercely independent female artist of the 20th century, according to art historians.

Although her works have been included in almost every major surrealist exhibition since the 1930s, she has refused to call herself a surrealist, in part because of the misogyny of the movement’s leader, André Breton. She died in 1996.

Zukerman and Fini spoke regularly by phone for two years before meeting face-to-face in Paris in the early 1980s. “Neil learned to speak French so he could converse with her. She could be incredibly nice, but she was no angel,” Shivers said.

“Once an artist sent him one of his paintings to review. It was returned to the gentleman in a kraft paper envelope, cut into pieces. She said, “Sorry, I couldn’t find a bigger envelope.”

On one occasion, while she was having lunch with Pablo Picasso and the art dealer Julien Levy, the latter grabbed a napkin on which Picasso had scribbled. “Leonor picked up the towel and said, ‘Oh Pablo! The same old shit. She tore it up and threw it in the gutter,” Shivers said.

“She lived with two men for 35 years. She always said that a woman should have two lovers: one for sex and one for emotional and intellectual.

Detail of Rasch Rasch Rasch … Meine Puppen Warten by Leonor Fini. Photography: Sotheby’s

Last year, Fini’s 1938 self-portrait, Self-Portrait with Scorpion, sold for $2.3 million. His paintings are part of the permanent collections of the Met, the Tate Modern and the Center Pompidou.

Lisa Stevenson, modern and contemporary specialist at Sotheby’s, said that it was “tricky to confine Fini’s work to one category or one movement; she presented a new and truly modern sense of the feminine”.

She added, “Fini’s work was groundbreaking. She explored sexuality and questioned and affirmed the position of women away from the traditional role of muse or mother. With her ongoing investigation of notions of female identity and her rejection of the rational, it’s only natural that Fini finds herself so closely tied to the Surrealist movement. But his relationship with surrealist artists was complex.

“Over the past decade, we have seen women who were historically considered on the fringes of the Surrealist movement rightfully cultivated as serious and meaningful artists.”

Among the sold works from Zukerman and Shivers’ collection is Fini’s 1975 fantasy painting Rasch Rasch Rasch…Meine Puppen Warten (Hurry, Hurry, Hurry…My Dolls Are Waiting). It depicts the child artist, dressed by an adult woman while gazing through a window at five partially clothed women.

Inside the apartment.
Inside the apartment. Photography: Colin Miller

The sales series also includes Fini’s many depictions of sphinxes and other characters shapeshifting into cats, birds and skeletons. But Frissons keeps his favourite, a painting of Tristan and Isolde hanging above the couple’s bed. “It will stay until I’m gone,” he said.

The apartment, in a former industrial building, includes a “garden room” with a mosaic floor made up of 80,000 tiles, a huge collection of vintage perfume bottles occupying a bathroom wall and a cinema room dedicated to Marilyn Monroe.

Apartment of Neil Zukerman and Tom Shivers.
Photography: Colin Miller

Zukerman and Shivers had always intended to sell a number of works to fund their retirement. But Shivers, 79, still collects “a few pieces”, and a storage room in the attic is “filled from floor to ceiling” with works of art. The apartment “will never look minimalist”, he said.

A number of works by Leonor Fini from the collection will be offered at Sotheby’s(Women) Artists‘, open for auction from March 17 to 23, 2022.

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