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The Rockefeller Collection

Is this 2018’s biggest auction? In March 2017, David Rockefeller – the last surviving grandson of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller – died at the age of 101. Christie’s is now preparing to auction his vast and prestigious collection in a series of auctions set to make history.

David Rockefeller was the world’s oldest billionaire and an avid collector of art. Before his death at the age of 101, he was the last surviving grandchild of the infamous John D. Rockefeller Sr. (1839-1937), America’s first billionaire and one of the last of the so-called ‘Robber Barons’.

Claude Monet (1904-1982), Nympheas en Fleur

While John Sr was a controversial figure – seen by many as the embodiment of aggressive capitalism – David Rockefeller became well-known for his philanthropy, charitable work and contributions to public life. His civic achievements include the building the 60-storey One Chase Manhattan Plaza and helping to construct the original World Trade Center, as well as donating over $1 billion to charity. David was the Rockefeller who ‘gave back’ to society, so it is perhaps apt that with his death should come the release of his entire art collection.

In accordance with Rockefeller’s final wishes, the collection – all 1,600 lots of it – is going up for auction at Christie’s New York in the Rockefeller Center. According to industry estimates, The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller could take in an astounding $650 million, which would make it the highest-grossing single collection in history. All proceeds from the sale will go to charity, with a selection of Rockefeller-backed, no-profit organisations, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Harvard University and the Council on Foreign Relations, taking a share of the profits.

The collection will be offered in a series of sales in May, and represents the latest in Rockefeller’s pledge to leave the majority of his wealth to philanthropic causes and provide for the cultural, educational, medical and environmental needs of the people. Rockefeller’s son, David Jr, commented: “We are delighted to be partnering with Christie’s to create a significant fund-raising opportunity for the philanthropies that are so important to the Rockefeller family. We are proud to fulfil my father’s wish to share with the world the art and objects that he and my mother collected over a lifetime together and to use them as a means to continue the long legacy of Rockefeller family philanthropy.”

But what exactly does the collection include? According to Ronald Lauder, co-founder of the Neue Galerie, in New York, the collection is “the best of the best. Picasso, Manet, Monet, Derain… whatever I saw in their houses was the finest example of its type, the best work that that artist did.” Lauder has three categories of art: ‘Oh’, ‘Oh my’ and ‘Oh my God’. This is all ‘Oh my God’.

The auction will offer a kaleidoscopic display of decorative and fine art, emanating from multiple cultures, centuries and continents. Nonetheless, its most sought after works will be the Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and modern paintings, many of which were acquired in the 1950s and 60s. In the eyes of MoMA director Glenn Lowry: “David Rockefeller is one of the greatest collectors of the 20th century… He came to it naturally, thanks to his family, but he really went after significant masterpieces – a number of absolutely critical pictures – and he got them.”

Indeed, David’s mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, was one of the original co-founders of MoMa in 1929, so a passion for art really did run in the family. David’s childhood home, on New York’s West 54th Street (then the tallest private residence in the city), was itself a cornucopia of prestigious art from around the world. Rockefeller himself reflected: “The variety of both fine and decorative art objects in it left a very lasting impression on me and undoubtedly contributed to my own ongoing fascination with many different forms of cultural expression.” There were mediaeval tapestries, ceramics, Persian carpets, and old-master paintings that were collected by his father, John D. Jr, but it was really his mother’s taste in Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art that laid the foundations for his own collection.

According to Christie’s Americas Chairman, Marc Porter: “This is the last, great, fully intact collection of Impressionist and modern art put together in the 20th century.” The auction’s highlights include Matisse’s Odalisque with Magnolias, (1923), estimated at $50 million, which is potentially the most important work by the artist to come on the market in a generation. Monet’s Water Lilies, 1914-17 ($40 million) is another jewel in the crown, along with The Roadstead at Grandcamp, 1885 ($30 million) – one of the last Seurat paintings to remain in private hands.

Previous sales of works from the Rockefeller collection indicate just how monumental Christie’s results could be. In 2007, Rockefeller sold White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), by Mark Rothko (1950), which he had bought for under $10,000 in 1960. He sold it at Sotheby’s for an astonishing $72.8 million, more than three times the existing auction record for a Rothko at the time.

David and Peggy Rockefeller clearly had a keen eye for collecting, making greater returns on their artistic investments than on their considerable shares on the stock market. However, Rockefeller maintained that financial return was never the main guiding force in their pursuits, privileginginstead the aesthetic pleasure they would gain from each piece.

So how did David and Peggy become such outstanding collectors? It helped that when David inherited his mother’s position on MoMA’s board, he came into contact with the museum’s founding director, Alfred Barr Jr, and his wife Marga, who introduced him to the most renowned dealers and collectors of the time.

One of their first major purchases, a rare Cézanne masterpiece, entitled Boy in a Red Waistcoat, was bought from the estate of one of England’s great collectors, Mrs A. Chester Beatty. Perhaps their greatest collecting achievement came in 1968, following the death of Gertrude Stein’s companion, Alice B. Toklas. Toklas had amassed one of the most singular collections of modern art, including 47 pieces by Picasso and Juan Gris. Along with a syndicate of friends and family, Rockefeller purchased the entire collection, ensuring that he personally came away with the most coveted piece – Picasso’s Young Girl with a Basket of Flowers (1905) – one of the most intensely beautiful portraits from the artist’s Rose Period.

Pablo Picasso, Young Girl with a Basket of Flowers (1905)

The collection also features American paintings, English and European furniture, Asian works of art, European ceramics, Chinese export porcelain, silver and American decorative arts and furniture. Select highlights from the collection will tour Asia, Europe and around the United States ahead of the auction, alongside exhibitions, art forums and a vast number of public and private events.

Discussing the collection before his death, David Rockefeller said: “Eventually, all these objects – which have brought so much pleasure to Peggy and me – will go out into the world and will again be available to other caretakers who, hopefully, will derive the same satisfaction and joy from them as we have.”

This article was first published on on 18 January

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