Living like a Rockefeller

Christie's auction of Rockfeller's estate brought in $833 million for charity

19 May 2018

In early May, David Rockfeller's three-day estate sale brought in $833 million for charity, setting an auction record for a private collection.

Rockefeller—the world's oldest billionaire—passed away last year, at the age of 101, leaving behind a legacy as a banker, philanthropist and heir to one of America's legendary fortunes.

As part of Rockefeller's very detailed estate plan, Christie's auctioned off more than 1,500 items from the estate of Peggy and David Rockefeller, including Impressionist and American paintings, Napoleon's dinner service, Buddhist deities, African figurines, Japanese porcelain and Persian rugs, among other objects, with paintings from Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Manet, Van Gogh and beyond.

In a series of video interviews, Doug Woodham, managing director of Art Fiduciary Advisors and former President of Christie's Americas, discusses the "provenance of Rockefeller," as well as how individual pieces fared.

"People were willing to pay spectacular prices for these works," said Woodham. "I think the fact that they'd been off the market, that they had what's called the provenance of David Rockefeller, was extremely important in the prices that were—that were achieved."

"If you took many of those objects in the sale and put them into another evening sale six months or a year from now without the David Rockefeller name attached to them, they probably would have gone for about a third less," he said. "Put another way, people were willing to pay almost a third more than fair market value to be able to get something that came from the David and Peggy Rockefeller collection. So people's emotional attachment to not only the object, but the emotional attachment to who the previous owner was—and the bragging rights associated with that—helped drive prices up."

In part two, Woodham discusses Pablo Picasso's "Fillette à la corbeille fleurie," which sold for $115 million, exceeding expectations of $100 million. "When people think of Picasso they often tend to think of cubism," said Woodham. "They tend to think of abstract, wild images. Before his cubist phase, there are two periods of his career, the rose period and the blue period which collectors covet. He didn't make that many of those paintings. Most of them are in museums. David Rockefeller had one—of a woman, full-length, nude, with a basket of flowers that he hung in his living room—that he bought in 1968."

In this third video, Woodham speaks about a masterwork by Matisse that sold for just shy of $81 million. “There was a beautiful painting by Matisse that was included in the David Rockefeller sale," said Woodham. "Most people are familiar with Matisse. He was a very, very, very prolific artist. So there are lots of paintings, lots of drawings. The ones that are colorful, that have great pattern, beautiful line that collectors love, most of them are in museums. The one that was included in the David Rockefeller sale had everything you could possibly want in a colorful, beautiful nude painting that sold for just shy of $81 million."

In this final video, Woodham speaks about how Rockefeller's mother and Napoleon had a shared love of porcelain, a fateful trip to Elba and who else may have eaten off the porcelain dessert service.

"One special object in the sale is a dessert service that David Rockefeller's mom bought many years ago," said Woodham. "And you, think, 'Dessert service, give me a break? What's going on here?' It ends up that David Rockefeller's mom loved porcelain and was a very big porcelain collector."

"David Rockefeller and his wife were also very big porcelain collectors. And interestingly, Napoleon was a passionate collector of porcelain. And so Napoleon commissioned a 250-piece dessert service that had insects and moths and butterflies on it."

"When he was deposed and went to Elba, he took this dessert service with him—because he was passionate about porcelain. Who knew?"

"This set's since been broken up, but David Rockefeller's mom has 22 piece of this service," he continued. "And it's a dessert service, so it's 22 plates and some bowls and cups. And that sold this morning for $1.8 million. The pre-sale estimate was $150,000 to $250,000. And so there were lots of phone bidders, lots of people who were interested in it because, if you think about it, what could be a better conversation starter than, 'Let me tell you about the dessert and the plate that you're eating on.'"

"But these are things that you have to hand wash. These are not something that you would put in the dishwasher."

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