When the art collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller is put up for sale by Christie’s on Tuesday, the result is expected to be massive: the auction is predicted by some to be perhaps the biggest such sale, by dollar value, in history. A Christie’s auctioneer told Reuters that the collection could go for upwards of $500 million. The earnings from the sale will go to charity.
It’s perhaps a somewhat surprising end for a collection that started with an insult about the Rockefellers’ lack of taste in art.
The collection belonged to billionaire philanthropist and former Chase Manhattan chief David Rockefeller, who died about a year ago at 101, and his late wife. As the grandson of John D. Rockefeller, the Gilded Age industrialist who co-founded Standard Oil Company, David Rockefeller had grown up surrounded by masterpieces. But he wasn’t passionate about collecting anything but beetles until he was literally shamed into it. Shortly after being elected to the board of the Museum of Modern Art in 1948, Marga Barr — wife of the museum’s first director, Alfred Barr — asked the Rockefellers why they had so many paintings of “little men in red coats” at their home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, dissing the mostly nondescript 18th century British paintings of fox hunting, equestrian scenes and British officers she saw during a tea there.
“Peggy and I were taken aback by her bluntness and more than a little annoyed but, upon reflection, had to admit the art on our walls wasn’t of great caliber,” Rockefeller wrote in his memoir. “We decided then and there to place more emphasis on quality in our purchases.”
The Barrs taught them about late 19th century and early 20th century art, and guided them as they cultivated their collection of Impressionist and modern art, which was assembled mostly in late 1940s through the early 1960s. In a trend piece about businessmen buying up art in the April 1960 issue of Fortune, he declared, “Business should support the art of today as the Medici of Florence did.”
Within a decade, they had become skilled collectors; it was in 1958 that they acquired one of the paintings that is of particular interest in this week’s sale: Henri Matisse’s Odalisque couchée aux magnolias, painted in Nice, France, in 1923. The Rockefellers purchased it from Chicago modernist art collector Leigh Block. Now, Christie’s hails it as “the most important work by the artist to be offered on the market in a generation.” Believed to be worth around $70 million, it’s also the highest estimated work by Matisse to ever be offered at auction.
The post-war period was a good time to start collecting, says Peter J. Johnson, the Rockefeller family historian who helped Rockefeller write his memoir. “A lot of art was starting to become available and quite frankly it’s because many of the people who had owned this art in Great Britain or France were still recovering from the war, and the one thing that they had that was liquid were paintings,” he says. “Often times they made these things available and these things began to move into American collections.”
Below are three acquisitions in this week’s auction that, as Johnson explains it, show how Peggy and David Rockefeller approached art collecting: