David and Peggy Rockefeller’s legendary art collection is going up for auction this spring and is expected to fetch more than $500 million. Christie’s auction house has secured the mandate to sale hundreds of artworks including major paintings by Monet, Matisse, Picasso, Hopper and many others. If the auction house realises $500m or more it will surpass the 2009 sale of the collection of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, which totalled $484 million and was dubbed the sale of the century.
Rockefeller, who was the last surviving grandson of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller, one of America’s first billionaires, passed away in March last year at the age of 101. His wife, Peggy, died in 1996. After his death the family decided to auction his collection to benefit selected cultural, educational, medical and environmental charities that the couple supported in their lifetime.
Those include the David Rockefeller Fund, Rockefeller University, Harvard University, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Council on Foreign Relations, Americas Society, American Farmland Trust, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, Stone Barns Restoration Corporation, Mount Desert Land and Garden Preserve, the Rockefeller Family Fund, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
Peter Johnson, the family historian, said that Rockefeller was buying new pieces right up to his final years, but had always intended that his art collection should be sold after his death.
In 2010 Rockefeller signed the Giving Pledge which commits billionaires to publicly donate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. He noted at the time: "Our family continues to be united in the belief that those who have benefited the most from our nation’s economic system have a special responsibility to give back to our society in meaningful ways."
Rockefeller’s art collection comprised about 15,000 pieces gathered over a lifetime and handed down from previous generations according to Fraser Seitel, the Rockefeller family spokesman. The sale will span some 2,000 individual works which include Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, American paintings, English and European furniture, Asian works of art, European ceramics and Chinese export porcelain, silver, and American decorative arts and furniture according to Christie’s.
“The Peggy and David Rockefeller Collection represents two individuals’ extraordinary dialogue with art and the world—a staggering collecting achievement extending across geography, history, and medium” Christies said.
Highlights of the monumental collection
The auction will feature Monet’s water-lily painting “Nympheas en fleur,” estimated at $35 million, Picasso’s “Fillette a la corbeille fleurie ”, estimated at $70 million , (painted in 1905, once owned by Gertrude Stein, hung in the library of Rockefeller’s townhouse in New York ), Matisse’s “Odalisque couchee aux magnolias”, estimated at $50 million, a dessert service that accompanied Napoleon into exile on the island of Elba and many others.
“You end up running out of superlatives,” The Associated Press quoted Jonathan Rendell, deputy chairman of Christie’s Americas, as saying. “Some of the things are jaw-dropping.”
Highlights of the collection are on display in Christie's flagship gallery in London from Feb. 21 till March 8. There will also be previews in Beijing (April 6-7), Los Angeles (April 6–12), and Shanghai (April 10-11), leading up to the auctions at Christie’s Rockefeller Center in the heart of New York City in May 2018. Each tour stop will reveal new facets of the collection. Twenty-three lots from the collection were shown in Hong Kong between 24-27 November 2017.
Rockefeller, a major donor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MoMA) promised about 30 significant artworks to MoMA and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Associated Press reported citing Seitel. Those works will be excluded from the Christie’s auctions. Rockefeller's connection with the MoMA can be traced back to his childhood. His mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, was one of MoMA’s founders and he was exposed to art from a young age by her.
In 1948 he first served on the New York museum’s board as chairman and was later named honorary chairman. In 2005, he donated $100 million to the museum and he also contributed $77 million toward MoMA’s $858 renovation plan. Rockefeller and his collection was the subject of MoMA's 1994 exhibition “Masterpieces from the David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection: Manet to Picasso,” featuring 21 canvases gifted or promised to the institution.
“David Rockefeller is one of the greatest collectors of the 20th century,” MoMA director Glenn Lowry told Vanity Fair.
The sale is also noteworthy because Rockefeller rarely brought his holdings to auction during his lifetime. The one major exception, White Center (Yellow, Pink, and Lavender on Rose), painted by Mark Rothko in 1950, fetched $72.84 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2007, a record at the time for a postwar work sold at auction. He had bought it for less than $10,000 in 1960.
Christie’s competed for the collection with rival Sotheby’s which offered the Rockefellers a guarantee of more than $650 million in 2013, according to a person familiar with the matter AP reported. Given the return to Christie's from Sotheby’s of Marc Porter, who has a long working relationship with the Rockefellers, the New York Times wrote it was “no surprise” the collection ended up at Christie's.