The Sale of the Century: The Rockefeller Estate

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Five Monet paintings, a Picasso once owned by Gertrude Stein, and a 256 Sèvres porcelain service taken by Napoleon on exile with him to the island of Elba comprise just a small part of the collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller. These pieces along with over a thousand others will be auctioned off next month at Christie’s in New York. The sale is a result of David Rockefeller’s will which stipulates the bulk of his wealth be given to charity upon his death. Proceeds from the sale will benefit charities and nonprofit organizations supported by the couple including Harvard University, the Museum of Modern Art, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Maine Coast Heritage Trust. Estimates for the total amount garnered for all the lots range from 500 million to 1 billion dollars. The range is so large because the market has not seen a comparable collection go up for auction in decades. However, if the total amount exceeds 1 billion dollars, it will be the highest grossing auction in history.

 

Candid Image of Peggy and David Rockefeller dancing
Peggy and David Rockefeller

A nude Matisse painting hanging in the Rockefeller home above a table with lamps and decorative objects
Henri Matisse’s Odalisque couchée aux magnolias in the living room of the Rockefeller’s Hudson Pines residence (Image courtesy of rockefellercenter.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Couple and their Collection

David Rockefeller (1915-2017) was one of the United States’ most influential civic leaders and philanthropists. He was the last surviving grandson of industrialist John D. Rockefeller. Peggy McGrath Rockefeller (1915-1996) was a dedicated conservationist and a founder of the Maine Trust in Topsham, Maine. The couple was married for 56 years. They began collecting art early on in their marriage though a pivotal moment came in 1948 soon after Rockefeller took his mother’s place on the board at MoMA. The museum’s director, Alfred Barr, teased the couple about the lack of originality in their existing collection which consisted of several 18th century English portraits “featuring men in bright red coats.” Barr put them in contact with prominent dealers and art collectors of the day.

Rather than focusing on value or resale potential, the couple chose art based on their tastes. Therefore, their collection is quite eclectic and vast; it encompasses multiple geographic regions, historical periods, and media. Examples of pieces from their collection include original works by American and European masters including Picasso, Gauguin, Matisse, Monet, Miró, Edward Hopper, and Georgia O’Keefe. Also included are unique pieces of decorative art, furniture, statuary, and ceramics from Europe, the United States, Asia, and beyond. According to Christie’s Chairman of the Americas, Marc Porter, the collection is roughly “a third American, a third European, and a third Gulf of Asia.” The collection demonstrates the overall collecting interests of the pair: Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works of art, American paintings, Asian works of art, and American and European decorative arts and furniture.

The couple also enjoyed living with their art rather than keeping it in storage. Works from the Rockefeller’s collection were displayed in their residences in Manhattan, Pocantico Hills, the Hudson Valley, Maine, and beyond. Likewise, David Rockefeller wanted these works of art to be seen even after his death.

Below are some highlights from the collection that will go up for auction beginning May 8th. As the auction has ended, the amount the works sold for is also listed below.

 

Painting of a nude girl standing holding a bouquet of flowers
Fillette à la corbeille fleurie, Pablo Picasso, 1905 (Price Realized: $115 million)

 

This Picasso painting of a young nude girl holding a basket of flowers only had one other owner besides the Rockefellers: Gertrude Stein and her companion Alice Toklas. It was purchased by Rockefeller when the women’s art collection went on sale after Toklas’s death. This painting is one of the most impressive works included in the auction, and it consequently has one of the highest estimates of between 90 and 120 million dollars.

 

Colorful painting of a Mexican festival
The Rivals, Diego Rivera, 1931 (Price Realized: $9,762,500)

This work was originally commissioned by David Rockefeller’s mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. She was an admirer of the Rivera’s work and even invited him to do a solo exhibition at MoMA. The painting shows a traditional Mexican festival. Rivera painted the work in a temporary studio aboard a steamship heading from Mexico to the United States. The work is estimated to sell for 5 to 7 million dollars.

 

Set of three Miro paintings with abstract shapes and blue backgrounds
Mural I, Mural II, Mural III, Joan Miró, 1933 (Price Realized: $20 million)

These three paintings formed the first in a total of eighteen compositions that were based on collages. Miró created the Mural paintings for the nursery in the home of Pierre Loeb, the artist’s Paris dealer. Miró’s primitive and child-like imagery made him the perfect artist for this project. David Rockefeller bought the three works at auction, and they hung in the living room of his Maine home.

 

Gold incense burner with Christian imagery
Incense burner, Syria, second half of the 13th century (Price Realized: $432,500)

This object was one of Mr. Rockefeller’s favorites; he kept the burner on his desk at One Chase Manhattan Plaza for twenty years. It is one of only six known incense burners of the period and region and only the second known complete version. It is estimated to sell for 150,000 to 200,000 dollars.

 

Tune in between May 8th and May 10th to witness this historic auction. And, if you can’t afford to spend millions of dollars on a masterpiece, don’t worry. Baterby’s Art Gallery has artworks for every budget including works by artists from the Rockefeller collection such as Picasso, Matisse, Miró, Bonnard, and more.

 

UPDATE (5/16): After ten days of online sales and three days of live auctions, all items in the Rockefeller auction have sold for a grand total of 832.47 million dollars. This sum represents the largest amount fetched for a single collection at auction. Additionally, over eighty percent of the lots sold for above their high estimate price. Another surprising instance was the allure of decorative and collectible objects which sold for much high prices than anticipated. The highest priced works were Picasso’s Fillette à la Corbeille Fleurie (115 million), Claude Monet’s Nympheas en Fleur (about 84.7 million), and Henri Matisse’s  Odalisque Couchée aux Magnolias (80.8 million). Overall, the auction shows the power of celebrity to raise the value of a collection. 

 


Sources

Baltin, Steve. “Behind the Scenes of Christie’s $500 Million Rockefeller Art Auction.” Forbes. April 8, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevebaltin/2018/04/08/behind- the-scenes-of-christies-500-million-rockefeller-art-auction/#71b83df962d7.

 

“The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller to be sold to benefit charities.” Christie’s. July 25, 2017, https://www.christies.com/features/The-Collection-of-Peggy-and-David-Rockefeller-8373-1.aspx.

 

Kinsella, Eileen. Rockefeller Decoded: Christie’s Marathon of Sales Generated $832 Million—and Some Big Surprises, Too.  May 14, 2018, https://news.artnet.com/market/marathon-rockefeller-auction-at-christies-reels-in-record-833-million-1284995

 

“Live like a Rockefeller-An Ayyubid incense burner” Christie’s. April 10, 2018, https://www.christies.com/features/Live-like-a-Rockefeller-Ayyubid-Incense-burner-8857-1.aspx.

 

“Live like a Rockefeller-The Rivals by Diego Rivera.” Christie’s. March 8, 2018, https://www.christies.com/features/Live-like-a-Rockefeller-The-Rivals-by-Diego-Rivera-8927-1.aspx.

 

Reginato, James. “David Rockefeller and the Largest Art Auction of All Time.” Vanity Fairhttps://www.vanityfair.com/style/2017/12/david-rockefeller-and-the-largest-art-auction-of-all-time

 

All Images are from Christie’s unless noted.

 

 

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