At the recent Peggy and David Rockefeller three-day long, US$828-million estate sale at Christie’s in New York, artworks by big names such as Picasso, Matisse and Gauguin sold for hundreds of millions of dollars.
But a profusion of statuary, antiques, silverware, and what can only be called very high-end knickknacks, were also hot: One winsome Meissen figure of shepherds sold for $25,000, five times its high estimate.
Similarly, the type of dark, wooden furniture favoured by the Rockefellers hasn’t been showcased in design magazines in decades, but estate-sale bidders couldn’t get enough of it. One tripod table sold for $13,750, above a high estimate of $5,000, and an armchair went for $35,000, above its high estimate of $6,000.
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This sudden popularity of historical decoration “suggests two things,” wrote their son, David Rockefeller Jr., in an e-mail. “First, that there are many people who, quite touchingly, would like to have ‘a piece of the Rock’ – as you might call it – at a reasonable price.” Second, he wrote, “the buying public increasingly recognizes quality both in utilitarian objects [like chairs and silverware] and in strictly decorative objects as well.”
It’s undeniable that the Rockefeller name, synonymous with banking and philanthropy, is a major draw. It’s also possible that the Rockefeller sale, with its global, multimillion-dollar marketing effort spearheaded by Christie’s, made buyers realize that there’s an aesthetic that transcends the so-called “five-star hotel” style of generic, location-less good taste.
It’s anyone’s guess, but what we do know is that, amid the thousands of objects that sold, some stood out. (All of the estate proceeds are to benefit selected charities that Peggy, who died in 1996, and David Rockefeller, who died in 2017 at 101, supported in their lifetimes.)
Silver worth its weight in gold
A silver ice pail, purchased by Mr. Rockefeller in Mexico in 1995, was estimated to sell from $800 to $1,200. After furious bidding by phone, internet, and in the room, it hammered to a man sitting at the rear of the auction house. With premium, its total was a stunning $50,000.
A new record for Fairfield Porter
There was never doubt that the spectacular pieces of blue-chip European art would sell. How the American art, which can sometimes appeal to a more limited audience, would fare was a more open-ended question. Happily, many of the American works in Rockefeller’s collection went gangbusters, including a 1965 painting by Fairfield Porter, The Schooner II. Estimated from $1-million to $1.5-million, it set a new record for the artist when it sold for $1.93-million.
Double Rockefeller provenance
“The most stunning success so far among the decorative works,” David Rockefeller Jr. noted, “Was a George lll writing table at which my mother used to write her eloquent morning letters.” The table had been acquired in 1913 by John D. Rockefeller Jr. (David Rockefeller’s father), who used it at Kykuit, the family’s New York estate, until 1960. The piece has been in the family, in other words, for generations, and that seemed a powerful draw for multiple bidders. Estimated to sell from $8,000 to $12,000, it sold, with premium, for $360,500.
Pricey picnic serving ware
A present made to David Rockefeller by King Hassan II of Morocco in 1986, the wicker basket and picnic set from Asprey contained ruby glass drink ware bearing the king’s monogram, silver-plated serving ware including a “silver-plated sugar caster” from Christofle, a set of flatware for 12 (including dinner forks, luncheon forks, and cold meat forks), all stored in a red-leather-lined interior. It was estimated to sell for $10,000. Its final price: $212,500.
A duck that cost more than a house
If one thing was certain when the (gold) dust settled at the end of the Rockefeller sale, it was that the duck decoy market remains bullish. This whistling swan, made by John Haynes Williams in 1910, sold for $348,500, more than double its high estimate of $150,000.
An actual bargain
Watching the sale, it was easy to get jaded as record followed record. If a work didn’t sell for multiples of its high estimate, it felt disappointing. So when Pierre Bonnard’s Boulevard des Batignolles, estimated to sell for $800,000 to $1.2-million, sold for just $250,000, it was genuinely shocking. That’s particularly true when it comes to this work, which Mr. Rockefeller bought in 2006 for $856,000. Whoever bought it, in other words, paid less than a third of what Mr. Rockefeller had paid – more than a decade later.
Before the sale, Christie’s representatives had spoken of a strong level of interest from Asian bidders. Without knowing just how many lots sold to people in the region, numerous lots that would appeal to Asian buyers skyrocketed past their original estimates. For instance, a blue and white bowl from the Chinese Xuande period (1426-1435), which the Rockefellers had kept in their house in Maine, carried a high estimate of $150,000 and sold for $2.8-million.
A very expensive surrey
Mr. Rockefeller was known to drive a horse and carriage for fun around his estate in Westchester, and several of the buggies and surreys he used came up to auction. The estimates were admittedly almost absurdly low; this one, from the late 19th or early 20th centuries, carried a high estimate of $2,500. Even so, its total of $81,250 is surprising. That’s a 3,100-per-cent increase.