An American legacy is going up for auction at Christie’s this May in what is being called the sale of the century. The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller includes an impeccable selection of 1,600 artworks and artifacts, among them a Rose-Period Picasso purchased by the Rockefellers from the collection of Gertrude Stein, expected to sell for between $90 and $120 million; master works by de Kooning and Matisse; and a range of objects including a dinner set once belonging to Napoléon Bonaparte. These pieces of art have lived with the Rockefellers for decades, enjoyed by the family in their private homes. Personally selected by Peggy and David, Claude Monet’s Nymphéas en Fleur, for example, hung at the bottom of a spiral staircase at their Hudson Pines home in Winchester, New York. Peggy decorated all of the Rockefeller residences, thoughtful selecting each artwork’s placement.
“What is exceptional is the quality of the material here, is the ﬁrst thing. Everything is the best of its type—the great American paintings and great French paintings,” says Jonathan Rendell, deputy chairman at Christie’s Americas. Other than having exquisite taste, the Rockefellers are one of the most charitable families America has ever seen. This auction will carry on their tradition of philanthropy, with all the money raised by the estate sale being donated to charity. The collection is expected to go for north of $500 million USD, according to Christie’s, but based on the number of master works in the collection, it will likely sell for more. “This is the biggest charity sale ever. This is an extraordinary act on the part of Peggy and David Rockefeller to give away everything,” says Rendell over the phone from Paris, the third stop on an international tour to showcase a selection of the works.
The public preview also includes stops in Hong Kong, London (where this author saw it firsthand), Beijing, Los Angeles, and Shanghai before the auction is held at Christie’s Rockefeller Center Galleries in New York from May 7 to 11, 2018. More than 650 lots, including figurines, jewels, and service wares, are to be sold through online sales, which will run concurrently with the live auction.
According to Rendell, this sale is a long time in the making. In the mid-1990s, Peggy (1915 to 1996) and David (1915 to 2017) reviewed their collection, deciding which pieces were needed for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Founded by David’s mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, the museum received a selection of works to ﬁll gaps in its collection. Then the decision was made as to what would be part of the private collection, to over time be sold for charity.
Twelve organizations are beneﬁciaries of the sale; all were selected by Peggy and David and have been supported by the family for decades. These include Harvard University, which received the David Rockefeller Beetle Collection, along with charities addressing environmental concerns, and initiatives such as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which itself supports other organizations. The sale is in keeping with David’s pledge to direct the majority of his wealth to a good cause.
While Rendell says that a charitable element to auctions is becoming more common, it is more likely to be one piece or a small collection as opposed to anything on this scale. The Rockefellers were such leaders in the realm of philanthropy that even Bill Gates spoke with David on the subject. “Bill Gates had been talking to David Rockefeller before he set up his own foundation, so the idea of giving is something which I think is sticking with people,” says Rendell. “I think that Mr. Rockefeller intended to set the best possible example by giving everything.”
For the Rockefellers, giving everything means even masterpiece works of art that are expected to set new records at auction. What Christie’s calls “the most important work by Henri Matisse to be offered on the market in a generation,” also known as Odalisque couchée aux magnolias, is expected to break the sale record for the artist at $50 million. However, it’s not just the value of art that is represented in this auction—it is also American history.
The collection on offer is the heritage of one of America’s most famous families. “I think the collection is going to appeal across the board. I mean, this is America’s royal family—or as close to a royal family as America gets,” Rendell muses. “It is the most generous family that has ever existed. I think that there is a magic to it, there is an old-fashioned glamour to a collection like this.”
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