In his 102 years, David Rockefeller accomplished an amazing amount: The longtime chief of Chase Manhattan Bank, he helped set national fiscal policy, meeting with presidents spanning from Coolidge to Obama, and put together one of the most impressive art collections in the world, featuring Picasso, Monet, and Matisse. Of course, being an heir to the Rockefeller family’s oil fortune, the last surviving grandson of robber baron John D. Rockefeller, helped.
It’s estimated that David Rockefeller gave $1 billion of his wealth to charity in his lifetime. Now his philanthropy could double with an epic auction.
On May 7, 2018, the estate of David and Peggy Rockefeller will begin to go up for sale at Christie’s in New York City–the auction house is, fittingly, located at Rockefeller Center–with experts predicting up to $1 billion gained in total. In a statement, Christie’s says, “Gathered over a lifetime and handed down from previous generations, the collection reflects the Rockefeller family’s deep, life-long passion for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works of art, American paintings, English and European furniture, Asian works of art, European ceramics and Chinese export porcelain, silver, and American decorative arts and furniture.”
Vanity Fair says, “With the couple’s five children, 10 grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren already well provided for, all proceeds from the sale will go to a dozen designated nonprofit organizations, including Rockefeller University, Harvard University, the Museum of Modern Art, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.”
The most talked-about paintings are Monet’s water-lily painting “Nympheas en fleur,” estimated to sell for $50 million to $70 million, and Picasso’s “Fillette a la corbeille fleurie (Young Girl with a Flower Basket),” which has an estimate of at least $90 million. Art experts say that the Matisse painting from 1924 is the greatest one of the artist’s works to come onto the market in 50 years.
“David Rockefeller is one of the greatest collectors of the 20th century,” says Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry. “He came to it naturally, thanks to his family, but he really went after significant masterpieces—a number of absolutely critical pictures—and he got them.”
John D. Rockefeller–born in 1839 in upstate New York to a family headed by a father who was considered a conman and a mother who was a religious teetotaler–became an industrialist who consolidated the American petroleum industry and founded the Standard Oil Company, “subsequently building a fortune that made him one of America’s first billionaires and his family one of the richest and most influential in the nation’s history,” says Christie’s. In 1916, he became the first person to reach a personal fortune of $1 billion, which would be equivalent to at least $16 billion today. Some lists place him as the wealthiest American of all time.
When David Rockefeller was born on June 12, 1915, in a mansion on West 54th Street, his parents’ house was already packed with expensive art. In an interview given to Financial Times, Rockefeller said, “My parents really thought about the art of seeing. They thought about it in relation to flowers, to art, to nature in general,” Rockefeller tells me. I wonder for a moment whether one could say that about any bank chief executive today, before he explains how his own eye developed: “I was a fairly quiet person when I was young, so I did a lot of listening and a lot of looking. I was trying to understand what the adults were about, so I was trained by paying attention.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree at Harvard, Rockefeller spent a year studying at the London School of Economics, then received a Ph.D. in economics at the University of Chicago in 1940. Later that year, he married Margaret “Peggy” McGrath, the daughter of a prominent Wall Street lawyer.
“It is a testament to Peggy and David’s knowledge, passion and connoisseurship that they lived surrounded by masterpieces of the art-historical canon,” said Christie’s.
Nancy Bilyeau, the U.S. editor of The Vintage News, has written a trilogy of novels set in the court of Henry VIII: ‘The Crown,’ ‘The Chalice,’ and ‘The Tapestry.’ The books are for sale in the U.S., the U.K., and seven other countries. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com.