It Didn’t Hit $1 Billion, but Rockefeller Sale Still Set High
By Robin Pogrebin
May 11, 2018
No, the Rockefeller trove didn’t bring $1 billion this week, despite industry speculation that it might reach that historic high. The total fell considerably shy at nearly $833 million.
But the treasures of David and Peggy Rockefeller still set a high for the most valuable private collection sold at auction, surpassing the $443 million total (revised in 2013) for the Yves Saint Laurent collection in 2009. And the vigorous buying this week for everything from a Monet to a money clip nevertheless surprised many art experts.
Collectors and dealers generally agreed that the provenance of the prominent couple, together with Christie’s savvy marketing campaign (“Live Like a Rockefeller”), amounted to a magical alchemy of sorts that resulted in strong sales across the board.
“Whether you’ve been in the market forever or you’re coming into the market today, you really do have to honor the history here,” said the art adviser Sandy Heller. “It’s like things coming out of Buckingham Palace — this is what they were for this country and culture.”
And for some, there was the additional satisfaction of knowing that the proceeds would go to various charities, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.
Art market veterans were particularly struck by the strength of bidding for Impressionist lots like Monet’s “Nymphéas en Fleur” (“Water Lilies in Bloom”), given the current cultural focus on contemporary art (and the consensus that the work was not one of the artist’s best water lilies pieces). Nevertheless, the painting prompted frenzied activity in the room and on the phones, ultimately selling for $85 million with fees, a considerable jump from its $50 million estimate. The winning bid was placed on the phone by Xin Li Cohen, the deputy chairman of Christie’s Asia.
“I was very reassured by it,” said Melanie Clore, a veteran Sotheby’s specialist who recently became an art adviser. “The traditional Impressionist pictures made good prices. It confirmed there is still a market for those paintings.”
There was the usual post-sale speculation about who bought what, with Christie’s reporting that a sprinkling of buyers were institutions. Because Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, was the successful bidder on Georges Seurat’s “La Rade de Grandcamp (Le Port de Grandcamp),” which sold for $34 million, many assumed he had bought it for his own museum. Mr. Tinterow, in a telephone interview, said he had bought it for a Houston collector.
The Rockefellers’ place settings and collectibles also brought huge prices, including the 14-karat-gold money clip — depicting Rockefeller Center — which sold for a whopping $75,000 with fees (against an estimate of about $1,200).
“I am surprised at how much more the decorative arts are making than estimate,” Marc Porter, the chairman of Christie’s Americas, said. “I expected some Rockefeller premium, but not the multiples of five and 10.”
Mr. Porter said the $1 billion figure was promoted by the press and not Christie’s. “I never thought it could make a billion dollars,” he said. Speaking of Tuesday night’s $646 million auction of 19th and 20th century art, he said, “You would have to have added another $200 million to that evening sale, which was beyond anyone’s expectation.”
Still, had bidding taken off for the highest-priced lot of the week, “Fillette à la Corbeille Fleurie” (Young Girl With Basket of Flowers), Christie’s might have come close. Instead, the painting sold on one bid to its guarantor for $115 million, with fees. But Mr. Porter said the work was always a gamble, given that it depicts a naked teenage girl and is not easily recognizable as a Picasso.
“It’s a tough picture,” Mr. Porter said. “It’s tough in subject matter and it’s tough in that it’s not graphically readable.”
The lot was purchased by the Nahmad family, according to two sources close to the sale — one a former auction executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect business relationships. Helly Nahmad, a dealer, would not confirm this, saying only that “it’s a great painting.” He added, “It’s being loaned to the Musée d’Orsay.”
Needless to say, the Rockefeller family, which had been guaranteed $650 million by Christie’s, was pleased with the results, with members of the family attending the live auctions and hosting a toast for Christie’s after Wednesday evening’s “Art of the Americas” sale. Diego Rivera’s “The Rivals” — depicting a traditional Oaxacan festival — brought nearly $10 million, an auction high for the artist, that night. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller commissioned it in 1931.
“There is some sentimentality about seeing a collection that was so tightly together and in four different houses split apart,” David Rockefeller Jr. said in a telephone interview. “It’s a great mixture of anticipation of exhilaration and some sadness.”
Asked if there was a particular artwork for sale Tuesday that conjured his father, Mr. Rockefeller said it was Matisse’s “Odalisque Couchée aux Magnolias,” painted in Nice in 1923 and set against a richly decorated background.
“It was in a very visible place in the Westchester County house,” he said. “I figured out my father positioned his chair so that he could always be looking at that work.”
The piece was among the most hotly contested of the week, ultimately selling for $80.8 million on an estimate of $70 million, a new auction high for the artist.