The sale of the century: A look inside the Rockefeller auction

Key Points
  • Christie's will auction off the collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller in May.
  • The vast treasure trove of more than 2,000 objects is estimated to sell for more than $500 million.
  • All of the proceeds from the sale will go to charity.
Rockefeller auction called the 'sale of the century'
Rockefeller auction called the 'sale of the century'

David Rockefeller Jr. is sitting by the fire at his farmhouse in upstate New York, reminiscing about his father, the late David Rockefeller.

"One of his repeated phrases was 'the best,'" David Jr. recalls of his dad, who died last year at age 101. "He would say 'This is the best steak I've ever had.' Or 'These are the best scrambled eggs I've ever had.' We used to kid him about it. But I came to understand that he was really feeling that. It was his gratitude."

"He was also a master of understatement," David Jr. said. "He would say things like 'I've had quite an interesting life.'"

It's no understatement, however, to say that the incredible life of David Rockefeller — the last surviving grandson of Standard Oil billionaire John D. Rockefeller — is about to give rise to the sale of the century. In May, Christie's will auction off the collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller, a vast treasure trove of more than 2,000 objects that's estimated to sell for more than $500 million. Many art experts expect the total could approach $1 billion.

“Water Lilies” by Claude Monet

Either way, it will be the largest auction of a single collection in history, far surpassing the collection of Yves Saint Laurent in 2009, which hit $485 million and holds the record.

All of the proceeds from the sale will go to charity. David Rockefeller, the ultimate American Brahmin, served as the longtime chairman and CEO of Chase Manhattan Bank and was a confidant of presidents, prime ministers and royals alike. He was a voracious and expert collector. He and his late wife, Peggy, traveled the world starting in the 1940s in search of the finest paintings, sculptures, fine china and collectibles that he could find.

Now, their homes are being sold and virtually everything inside is heading to the auction block.

It will be the ultimate billionaire's yard sale, with famous works by Picasso, Monet and Matisse, as well as prized Asian Buddhas, Latin American art, African masks, English furniture and diamond jewelry. Their massive collection of fine china — among the largest ever offered — includes Napoleon's favorite dessert service set, which the emperor loved so much he took it with him into exile on Elba.

The star of the sale will be Picasso's "Young Girl With a Flower Basket," a rare piece from the artist's coveted Rose Period. It could sell for more than $100 million. A Monet water lilies painting, which hung in the sweeping stairwell at Hudson Pines, could fetch $70 million. And a Matisse reclining nude, called "Odalisque Lying with Magnolias," could reach $90 million.

“Odalisque Lying with Magnolias” by Henri Matisse

Four homes owned by David Rockefeller — in Manhattan, in Maine, a farmhouse in upstate New York and an estate in Westchester — have been sold in a separate process, with the proceeds also going to charity. David Rockefeller Jr., who purchased the farm from his father's estate, said that as much he and the family will miss the properties and artwork, he's happy they will be sold to fund important causes.

"This is a grand recycling if you want to think of it that way," he said.

Beyond just a sale, however, the Rockefeller Collection is also a window into the gilded lives of one America's richest and most private dynasties. No other name in America symbolizes great wealth and refinement like the Rockefellers.

More than a century after John D. Rockefeller became America's first billionaire, the family — now entering their seventh generation — remains a powerful force in philanthropy and culture. As a measure of their continued stature, the Rockefeller name can add a premium of 50 percent or more on works of art and collectibles.

A Rothko painting owned by David Rockefeller, which became known as the "Rockefeller Rothko," sold in 2007 for nearly $73 million — an 80 percent premium over the expected sale price of more than $40 million.

David's home in Westchester, called Hudson Pines, which was listed for $22 million, just sold after fierce bidding war for $33 million.

Indeed, for the mass of new rich today, owning a piece of the Rockefellers carries special status.

"Buyers have that sense that they're buying stories and buying taste and buying something homey as well as something very beautiful," he said.

David Jr. said his parents followed specific rules when it came to collecting. They had a veto system where they wouldn't buy something unless they both liked it. They looked for the highest quality works, even if they were the most expensive. And they prized diversity, looking for works from a wide variety of artists from different cultures.

But their overriding criteria was beauty.

"Beauty was very important to them," David Jr. said. "A work that was fascinating but troubling probably wouldn't make the cut in terms of anything they had in their home."

This auction is not about bringing wealth to members of the family.  It's about doing very important things — bringing additional funds to institutes that my dad really cared about during his lifetime.
David Rockefeller Jr

David also learned about art from his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who helped found the Museum of Modern Art and had a large Asian art collection. David served on the MOMA board, with various terms as chairman since 1948, giving him access to experts and art works up for sale that many collectors crave.

While their art soared in value over the years, David and Peggy never bought with the intent of making money. David believed that if you bought the best quality, value often followed.

"It wasn't because he started to buy art for an investment," he said. "They wanted to live with it every day."

David Rockefeller lived the life and values that were ingrained in the family by its first fortune-maker, John D. Rockefeller. A religious teetotaler who tithed from his first paycheck, John D. built Standard Oil into the country's most feared and powerful monopoly in the late 19th century. His personal fortune in the early 1900s was equal to 1.5 percent of the nation's gross domestic product — which would be equal to $270 billion today.

He recorded his income and every personal expense in a detailed ledger, a practice followed by the Rockefeller children for generations. Despite vast inheritances and trusts, Rockefeller children were raised to be frugal and charitable. The family largesse created the University of Chicago, Colonial Williamsburg, the Rockefeller University, the Museum of Modern Art and the Rockefeller Foundation, not to mention countless institutions and non-profits overseas.

David grew up with vast privilege but lived the family's mantra that "to whom much is given, much is expected." As a kid, he recalled roller skating to school up Fifth Avenue, followed by the family limousine. He gave more than $1 billion to charity during his lifetime. In signing the Gates-Buffett "Giving Pledge," David wrote "those who have benefited the most from our nation's economic system have a special responsibility to give back."

As stipulated in David Rockefeller's will, the proceeds from the Christie's auction will go to 12 charities — including Harvard, the Museum of Modern Art, the Council on Foreign Relations and the American Farmland Trust.

"This auction is not about bringing wealth to members of the family," David Jr. said. "It's about doing very important things — bringing additional funds to institutes that my dad really cared about during his lifetime."

Of course, the family will miss many of David's properties and artworks. Family members were each allowed in David's will to have up to $1 million in items from his estate, but the big prizes are all being sold.

"There are members of the family that are really sad about that," he said. "I will certainly be wistful about the loss of the homes themselves because they were environments in which we grew up, we played, we got muddy in the streams and rode horses, and had games and all of those memories. But you know the memories still exist. I just hope other people will love the things as much as we did."

Of course, the Rockefellers still have a large fortune. They don't disclose financials.

Forbes estimated David Rockefeller's net worth at over $3 billion, but that included the value of a trust in which he was a beneficiary. That trust, which some estimate was roughly half of his reported net worth, will now be passed down to his five children and 10 grandchildren. Over time, however, the money will dissipate — and the family's influence will largely be through its philanthropy, which includes the Rockefeller Foundation, the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the David Rockefeller Fund. Combined the funds have a total endowments of over $5 billion.

David Jr. says he hopes the legacy of the Rockefellers isn't about their wealth, but the more enduring causes that wealth has funded.

"I hope that our family legacy will be about a global perspective, not a narrow perspective," he said. "I hope it will be about the importance of respecting the Earth and nature and the bounty of nature. I hope it will be about the importance of beauty in the world, manmade and natural, the importance of using your senses. I certainly hope it will be about generosity. Even people who don't have a lot of money can still be generous as opposed to selfish or self-oriented."

When I asked David Jr. about how he will feel the night of the auction, and whether he will regret the loss of so many family heirlooms, he replied: "You can't take it with you. At the end of the day, it's not the things themselves that matter in life."