The Rockfellers strike back

Rockefellers

“We are proud to fulfil my father’s wish to share with the world the art and the objects that he and my mother collected over a lifetime together and use them as means to continue the long legacy of Rockefeller family philanthropy”. This is how David Rockefeller Jr announced the partnership with Christie’s for what turned out to be one of the biggest transversal auctions ever made.

The collection clearly reflected the couple’s passion for Impressionism, American and Asian art, including works by Claude Monet (whose Nymphéas en fleur were hanged on the stairs of the Rockefeller’s mansion), Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. The catalogue, with more than 1,500 items of art raging from furniture, porcelain, lighting, and décor, was impressive and as predictable it summoned all the world greatest buyers. It has been reported that even Chinese clients who usually do their bid by telephone flew to New York to attend the auction.

Buyers were attracted of course not only by the masterpieces on sale but even by the allure that comes along with the Rockefeller’s name, it is well known how the history of a piece, including its previous owners, can have a massive influence on its price. Bear in mind that, for example, an Untitled sculpture form Alexander Calder whose previous owner was Alfred Barr, first director of the MoMa, was sold for a price double than its estimated one in 2016. The same had happened with another piece owned by the Rockefellers, “White centre” by Mark Rothko, that was sold by Sotheby’s in 2007 for $72.84 million when the artist record at the time was $22.4 million, set at Christie’s in 2005.

The auction process went from the 8th on May to Friday 11, and on Tuesday evening the auction was already the most valuable private sale of all time, besting the record previously held by Yves Saint Laurent Collection that yielded a total of $484 million in 2009. The auction took place in three consecutive evening sales, starting with European Art, 19th and 20th century art and continued through May 10th with other sales broken down into categories including art of the Americas; travel and Americana; and a two-part sale of English and European furniture, ceramics, and decoration. A special online auction, running May 1–11, features personal mementos, porcelain sculptures, dinnerware and more.

The first night was announced as “the auction of the century” and it didn’t disappoint the expectations with 100% of the lots sold, though this is not surprising given that Christie’s guaranteed the entire Rockefeller collection, and seven artist records set for a final amount of $646 million.

Henri Matisse’s “Odalisque coucheé aux magnolias”, estimated around $70 million, was (literally) guaranteed to set a record and was eventually hammered down at around this price. With premium, the final price was $80.8 million. Also, among the top lots were Georges Seurat’s “La rade de Grandcamp” sold for $30 million and Eugène Delacroix’s “Tiger Playing with a Tortoise “sold for $5.7 million. The final price exceeded the previous record of $7.7 million set in 1998, sign of just how rare it is for the artist’s work to come on the market. Paul Gauguin’s “La Vague”, meanwhile, scored $35.2 million. The most valuable lot sold was by far Pablo Picasso ‘s Rose-period “Fillette à la corbeille fleurie” with bidding opening at a hefty $90 million. With premium, the final price for the painting was $115 million.

The second night was all about American Art and scored $106 million. Soaring past the presale estimate of $45.4 million, the sale marked the highest total ever achieved for an American art auction. The works on sale ranged from Edward Hopper to Alexander Calder sculpture and a Willem de Kooning. Indeed, the entire result for this sale was less than the amount paid for one Picasso painting. Nevertheless, the sale set seven new artist records, including Gilbert Stuart, Charles Sheeler and Diego Rivera. Notably, the new high mark for Rivera doubled as the highest price ever achieved for a Latin American artwork at auction. Throughout their decades of collecting, the Rockefellers acquired an eclectic variety of objects, from porcelain to duck decoys to bluechip art. But Christie’s had placed a big bet that the provenance would have attracted bidders far and wide, and it did.

After astonishing the world with the sale of Salvator Mundi in 2017, Christie’s has set a new milestone in the Auction’s world, with a grand total of $832.57 million that will be distributed among several charities, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

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