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The Rockefellers are selling $500 million worth of art — these are their favorite pieces

The sale in May of the Rockefeller collection at Christie's has something for every type of collector — from rare Picassos and coveted Monets, to Asian Buddhas, carved wooden ducks, diamond cuff links and antique English furniture. It's estimated the collection could bring in $500 million, and some say it could reach $1 billion.

But for the Rockefeller family, the sales — a series of auctions between May 8 and 11 — will be the bittersweet end of an era. Virtually all of the family treasures owned by the late David Rockefeller (the grandson of America's first billionaire, John D. Rockefeller) and his wife Peggy will be sold, with the proceeds going to charity. Family members will see heirlooms and paintings they grew up with in their homes awarded to the highest bidders.

David Rockefeller
Courtesy of Rockefeller Archive Center
David Rockefeller

While Picasso's famed painting "Young Girl with a Flower Basket" will no doubt be the most expensive item sold the collection, expected to fetch more than $100 million, the Rockefeller's personal favorites are more about memories than a price tag. In an exclusive interview, David Rockefeller Jr., David's son, shared a few stories about the family's favorite items.

"Young Girl with a Flower Basket" courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd. 2018

David Jr. says one of his dad's favorite items was a small 13th century Syrian incense burner. It was given to him by his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and David always kept it on his desk at Chase Manhattan bank, of which he was chairman until 1981.

Incense burner courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd. 2018

David Jr. says one thing about the piece that interested his dad was that even though it was an Islamic artifact, it has Christian figures in the carvings, which speaks to the ability of art and beauty to bridge different religions.

"It's really quite an interesting piece," David Jr. says.

It's expected to sell for more than $200,000.

David Jr. says his favorite item being sold is a Matisse painting that hung in the family's estate in Westchester County, New York. The piece, called "Odalisque couchee aux magnolias," was painted in 1923 in Matisse's studio in Nice, France. The painting depicts a reclining nude basking in the sunlight surrounded by lush flowers and fruit. The colors are radiant and the expression of the model — one of Matisse's favorites — is relaxed and happy.

“Odalisque Lying with Magnolias” by Henri Matisse
Source: CHRISTIE'S IMAGES LTD. 2018
“Odalisque Lying with Magnolias” by Henri Matisse

"This is the real favorite of mine," David Jr. tells CNBC. "It's sensuous, it has the wonderful color palette of Matisse and the decorative elements that ultimately came into his cut-outs."

While David Jr. says he didn't grow up with the piece, which was acquired after he had gone away to school, "I loved that these pieces were always in rooms that I would visit." He says "Odaslique" shared the living room of Hudson Pines with a Renoir and a Pissarro.

David Rockefeller Jr. and Susan Rockefeller
Getty Images | Monica Schipper
David Rockefeller Jr. and Susan Rockefeller

The painting could sell for more than $90 million.

David Jr. says that while he's sad to see it go, he and the rest of the Rockefellers take comfort in knowing the proceeds will fund good causes, from the Museum of Modern Art and the Council on Foreign Relations to Rockefeller University and the various Rockefeller philanthropies.

The auction is a result of his father David Rockefeller's will. As a signer of the Giving Pledge, David, the last surviving grandson of Standard Oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, vowed to give the bulk of his wealth to charity upon his death, stating that "those who have benefited most from our nation's economic system have a special responsibility to give back."

While much of his fortune — estimated by Forbes at $3.3 billion — was in trusts that have now been passed down to his kids and grandkids, David's will stated that the vast majority of his assets, including all his homes and personal items, would be sold off for charity. As part of his will, his children were each allowed to take up to $1 million worth of his personal property as a gift. If they wanted anything beyond that, or an item with a higher value, they had to purchase it at fair market value. This provision, according to the will, would "enable each of my children to select items which are particularly meaningful to him or her."

Though David Jr. didn't choose to keep "Odaslique," he says, "I hope whoever buys it, that they invite me to come visit."

It's likely that whoever goes home with the Rockefeller Matisse would be delighted to give David Jr. occasional visitation rights.

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