Top of the Rock


Christie’s auction of the Peggy and David Rockefeller collection opens a window on elite collecting tastes in the 20th century, while providing an opportunity for today’s collectors to follow in the Rockefellers’ footsteps.

Claude Monet, Nymphéas en fleur, circa 1914-17

Claude Monet, Nymphéas en fleur, circa 1914-17,
oil on canvas, 63.375 x 71.125 in.;

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David Rockefeller was the last surviving grandson of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., the founder of the Standard Oil Company and one of America’s first billionaires. David, who was born in 1915, died last March at 101 with a fortune that Forbes estimated at $3.3 billion. During his lifetime, he served as chairman and chief executive of the Chase Manhattan Corporation and formed the Partnership for New York City. The banker also served as director to the Council on Foreign Relations, helped form the Council of the Americas, and had strong political ties—he had connections with the CIA and frequently met with foreign rulers and American presidents (John F. Kennedy was a Harvard buddy, and Rockefeller even dated Kennedy’s sister Kathleen). He married Margaret “Peggy” McGrath in 1940, a union that lasted 56 years and produced six children.

The marriage also generated an incredible collection of fine and decorative art representing a large array of interests. David’s mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, helped found the Museum of Modern Art in 1929, and David inherited a strong passion in Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modern painting from her (he continued to support the institution, giving, for instance, $100 million in 2005). A trip to China in 1917 ignited Abby’s enthusiasm for Asian art, a taste David also acquired after an excursion to the country in the early 1960s. Peggy’s love for art was bolstered by a deep appreciation of the natural world—she wrote the six-volume Wild Flowers of the United States and was an avid gardener, farmer, and staunch supporter of conservation causes. Said David of their collection, some time after Peggy’s death, “My late wife Peggy and I really bought things together. We both felt, wisely, that if we should live with things we should both like them.”

The Peggy and David Rockefeller collection is being auctioned at, appropriately enough, Christie’s Rockefeller Center Galleries in New York. The auction house will hold a series of sales dedicated to the collection on May 7–11 and will stage concurrent online sales with some estimates starting as low as $200. The sales’ many highlights, however, boast much bigger price tags—and appropriately so, as many rank in the top tiers of their respective collecting categories. A Matisse in the sale, for instance, Odalisque couchée aux magnolias (1923), is expected to vanquish the celebrated French artist’s current world auction record. With sterling examples of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, Modern and American paintings, as well as pieces of English and European furniture, Asian works of art, European ceramics and Chinese export porcelain, silver, and American decorative arts and furniture, the Rockefeller cache not only features a roster of future record-setters but also reads as a guide to what the American elite considered good taste in the 20th century.

The Collection Yves Saint Laurent et Pierre Bergé, which achieved over $400 million at Christie’s Paris in 2009, holds the title for most valuable collection offered at auction. The Peggy and David Rockefeller collection is poised to achieve similar results. As with the Parisian sale, the money generated from the Rockefeller auction will be used for philanthropic purposes. Rather than donating pieces of the collection to museums or, as is the vogue now, creating a stand-alone institution for the collection, the Rockefellers decided to sell their collection and direct the earnings to causes including the American Farmland Trust, Americas Society/Council of the Americas, Council on Foreign Relations, Harvard University, Mount Desert Land and Garden Preserve and the Museum of Modern Art.


Many of the pieces in the collection went on public view in advance of the sale. Early highlights were revealed in Hong Kong, and beginning in February, Christie’s toured different groupings of works at their flagship galleries in London, then Paris, Beijing, Los Angeles, and finally Shanghai. The collection went on view in New York on April 28 and will remain up through May 11.

The aforementioned Matisse, which was painted by the artist in his Nice studio in 1923, had pride of place in the living room of the Rockefeller’s Hudson Pines home. The vibrant nude is a representation of the artist’s favorite model, Henriette Darricarrére, languidly reclining in a sunlit room. The work is a feast of vibrant color and light—the artistic equivalent of a ripe, juicy orange. The Rockefeller’s acquired Odalisque couchée aux magnolias from Leigh Block, a Chicago-based modernist collector, in 1958, likely with some influence from Alfred Barr, the director of MoMA and a beloved advisor. Thought to be one of the finest paintings by Matisse in private hands, it is currently the highest estimated work by the artist ever to come to auction (estimate on request).

Barr and his wife, Margaret Scolari Barr, were instrumental in the development of the Rockefellers’ taste in modern art and their acquisitions of works. For instance, in 1966 Barr guided the Rockefellers into the purchase of Eugéne Delacroix’s Tiger Playing with a Tortoise (1862). Delacroix, who was fascinated by tigers, would often watch them at the Jardin des Plantes zoo in Paris and represented them several times in his work. The rendering of the animal here, with its restless brushstrokes and incredible coloration, shows the artist at the height of his powers. The painting, which had its own wall in the couple’s Upper East Side townhouse, is estimated at $5–7 million. With Barr’s encouragement the Rockefellers purchased a cache of important Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Modern paintings. Several are featured in Christie’s sales, such as Claude Monet’s Nymphéas en fleur (circa 1914–17, estimate on request), which the Rockefellers purchased from Parisian dealer Katia Granoff in 1956 almost immediately upon seeing it.

David and Peggy inherited Lilas et roses (1882), a petite, 13 x 10-inch oil on canvas by Edouard Manet, 10 years after Abby’s death. It was during this time that the matriarch’s furnishings were being redistributed, and David and Peggy drew lots for the painting, of which they were “especially fond.” The painting had been purchased at the New York gallery M. Knoedler & Co. and subsequently hung in Abby’s private sitting room. The painting, which depicts two roses among sprigs of lilacs, was painted within the last six months of the artist’s life. Manet was in the habit of painting still lifes of flowers or fruits to gives as gifts to friends; Lilas et roses was a gift for the daughter of his doctor, Ginevra Hureau de Villeneuve. It is estimated at $7–10 million.

The Rockefellers’ acquisition of a Rose Period Picasso is owed in part to luck. Fillette à la corbeille fleurie (estimate upon request) was painted by the artist in 1905 and purchased the same year by siblings Leo and Gertrude Stein. After Gertrude’s death in 1946, the painting remained with her partner, Alice B. Toklas, for 21 years—the remainder of her lifetime. In 1968, a group of art collectors convened in order to acquire Stein’s collection. When a felt hat with numbered slips of paper was passed among the collectors, David drew the first pick. Fillette à la corbeille fleurie, which would go on to hang in the library of the Rockefeller’s New York townhouse, was naturally his first selection.

The Rivals, a large-scale oil on canvas in the sale, marked the beginning of the Rockefeller family’s relationship with Diego Rivera. The painting was commissioned by Abby and finished by Rivera while he and Frida Kahlo were on a boat sailing to New York in 1931. It was featured in Rivera’s landmark solo exhibition at MoMA that same year but has rarely been exhibited since the 1930s. Instead, it was passed down to David and Peggy in 1941 as a wedding present and subsequently hung in their home in Ringing Point, Maine. Soon after the completion of the painting, Rivera and the Rockefellers began a storied history. In 1933, Rivera started work on Man at the Crossroads, a fresco planned for the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. However, after Rivera refused to remove images in the fresco of Vladimir Lenin and a Soviet Russian May Day parade, his commission was revoked. The fresco was removed from the wall in 1934. The Rivals, a richly colored representation of a local Oaxacan festivity, is estimated at $5–7 million. Having been exclusively in the Rockefeller family collection, this will be the painting’s first time on the market.

The sales include several important American paintings, as well, such as John Singer Sargent’s San Geremia (1913), estimated at $3–5 million, and Edward Hopper’s Cape Ann Granite (1928), estimated at $6–8 million. Another highlight, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Near Abiquiu, New Mexico, was painted in 1931, just two years after the artist’s first trip to New Mexico. The Rockefellers acquired the stunning Western landscape in 1997 (a smaller version, painted in 1930, is in the collection of the Met). David spent his 11th birthday in Taos during a family railway trip across the Southwest in the summer of 1926. Perhaps a stronger connection to the painting, however, was forged through his mother, who frequently acquired work from The Downtown Gallery, which was owned by her friend Edith Halpert. The dealer was an early proponent of O’Keeffe’s and was the first to sell the painting. Near Abiquiu, New Mexico is estimated at $3–5 million.

Untitled XIX (1982, oil and charcoal on canvas), a late-period work by Willem de Kooning, entered the Rockefeller collection in 1996 after the passing of Peggy that year. Following a spell of ill health, de Kooning returned to the studio in 1981 in a burst of turbulent creative energy. The result was a series of paintings, including Untitled XIX, with free and expansive—almost calligraphic—gestures. The works are now considered a high spot in the career of the artist, who was in his 80s when he made them. David’s acquisition of the Untitled XIX shows a continued interest in challenging, avant-garde work. The painting is estimated at $6–8 million.

The decorative artworks in the sales are just as exciting as the paintings. The Rockefellers amassed an incredible collection of Chinese export porcelain. Some pieces were inherited—David’s mother and his aunt, Lucy Truman Aldrich, were both avid collectors in the field, and David’s father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was fond of porcelain from the Ming and Kangxi dynasties (his first major art purchase was 65 pieces of Kangxi porcelain from J.P. Morgan’s significant collection in 1916)—and others were acquired by the couple over the years. A circa-1775 Chinese export “Tobacco Leaf” service passed through several members of the Rockefeller family: it belonged to Lucy Truman Aldrich, was acquired by Nelson Rockefeller in the ’60s or ’70s, was sold by Nelson before his death in 1979 to his younger brother Laurence, and then purchased from Laurence by David and Peggy in 1990. The service, which is painted in the traditional chrysanthemum version of the “tobacco leaf” pattern, is estimated at $150,000–250,000.

David’s father had an eye for “palace ware,” a pattern richly decorated with Chinese court scenes—each scene being unique—and intricate gilt borders, and began acquiring examples of the pattern in the 1920s from London dealer Alfred Rochelle Thomas and New York dealers J.A. Lloyd Hyde and Yamanaka. Through American scholarly publications, the pattern began to go by the moniker of “Rockefeller porcelain.” In 1955, David inherited several pieces of the pattern from his Aunt Lucy, and five years later, he acquired a portion of the service from his father’s estate. David and Peggy also purchased eight pieces featuring the pattern from the New Orleans auction house Morton’s. The Jiajing Period “Rockefeller Service” (circa 1805) is estimated at $100,000–150,000.

A Sévres “Marly Rouge” dessert service (circa 1807–09) is also coming on the block. The service was made for Napoleon I and was so beloved by the military leader that he insisted on taking it into exile with him in 1814. The following century, Abby acquired the largest single collection of the “Marly Rouge” service, and many pieces have not been on the market since (for context, only one dolphin-footed compote and six plates are in the collection at Fontainebleau). David’s brother Laurence inherited the service in 1948, and David acquired it in 2004. It is estimated at $150,000–250,000.

David also acquired a pair of Meissen porcelain models of hoopoes from his brother Laurence’s estate in 2004. Johann Kändler, the greatest European porcelain artist of his period, modeled the hoopoes in 1740. The birds, which were displayed in the dining room of the Rockefeller’s New York townhouse, are estimated at $20,000–30,000. Peggy spotted a pair of Chelsea porcelain plaice tureens in 1963 at the New York showroom of the Antique Porcelain Company. David bought the tureens, which were made around 1775 by the Chelsea Porcelain Factory in London, for Peggy as a Christmas present. The knobs on the lids of the playful trompe l’oeil fish-shaped tureens are pieces of seaweed, and their ladles are eels with scallop shells in their mouths. Fewer than 10 examples of the dishes survive (The National Trust, the British Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum all have examples). The Rockefellers’ examples are estimated at $80,000–10,000.

Several works of fine Asian art will be featured in Christie’s sales. A gilt-bronze figure of Amitayus made in the Imperial workshops by order of the Kangxi Emperor (reigned 1662–1722) leads the Chinese works of art. The Kangxi Emperor, a devout Buddhist established the tradition of Tibetan-style Buddhism in China. The bronze, which was likely a gift to a family member, depicts Amitayus, a god of long-life, seated in dhyanasana (meditation pose) on a double-lotus base with his hands held in dhyanamudra. He is adorned in intricate jewelry and wears an elaborate tiara. The piece is estimated at $400,000–600,000.


By Sarah E. Fensom

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: April 2018