Money

How this Rockefeller heir found out he was rich

Despite having one of the most famous last names in the world, David Rockefeller Jr. didn't know his family was wealthy until he heard it from his classmates.

"I actually had other people in school telling me I was a wealthy person," says Rockefeller, chairman of Rockefeller & Co. and the great grandson of John D. Rockefeller, America's first billionaire. "I didn't know my family was wealthy.

"I didn't personally feel rich, so I disagreed with them," he says.

It's hard to imagine having the last name "Rockefeller" and not knowing you're wealthy — the family had an $11 billion fortune as of 2016, according to Forbes. And more than 2,000 items that were part of the estate of David Jr.'s father, David Rockefeller, will be auctioned at Christie's May 8 to May 10, with proceeds estimated to top $500 million, all of which will go to charity. The auction will include a Picasso estimated to fetch over $100 million and a Matisse expected to sell for over $90 million.

David Rockefeller Jr., who's now in his 70s, grew up in a world of undeniable privilege. He lived in a townhouse on Manhattan's tony Upper East Side and a country home in Westchester County, both filled with art and antiques. He attended the Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the most prestigious prep-schools, and his dad was chauffeured to work each day.

Yet for all their trappings of wealth, the Rockefellers worked hard to downplay their vast fortune, even within the family. The Rockefellers didn't buy yachts or sports cars or fly on private jets. They had nice homes and artwork, but some of that had been in the family for generations. They preferred giving to spending and frugality to flash.

David Rockefeller holding David Rockefeller Jr., circa 1942
Courtesy of Rockefeller Archive Center
David Rockefeller holding David Rockefeller Jr., circa 1942

And even though the children were given small allowances, they were always encouraged to donate a portion to charity (usually at church) and to account for every expense. The practice dates back to John. D. Rockefeller's famed "ledger," in which he tracked every penny that he earned and spent.

"Like a lot of other boys, I'd be buying baseball cards and bubble gum, things like that," David Jr. tells CNBC.

Many of his classmates were spending far more lavishly.

"I had classmates that might not have had as much money in their family as we did but who were spending a whole lot more money," he says. "I remember we were gasping at a friend, when I was 12, who took a girl out to dinner and spent $50. We were thinking, 'Oh my god.'"

Like many "old money" dynasties, David Jr.'s parents and grandparents never explicitly discussed their wealth. When the subject did come up, the Rockefellers talked about the responsibilities of their good fortune, focusing more on philanthropy and constantly repeating the family mantra: "To whom much is given, much is expected."

So when David Jr. was in school and classmates told him that was family was rich, he didn't initially believe it.

"They seemed to know a lot more about the family wealth because actually, as in many family those days, sex and money were not subjects you talked about, so that was funny," he says.

It taught David Jr. an invaluable lesson: No matter how much money a family may have, it's important to emphasize responsibility over wealth, and charity over spending. Parents, he says, need to set the example for their kids by showing restraint and economy even if they can live like kings.

Courtesy of Rockefeller Archive Center

In short, your kids should never feel rich or entitled — even if they're Rockefellers.

"I think it's very important, that you not get use to going first class when you're a kid, because otherwise you don't learn the value of not having that. And I think that was part of the teaching," he says. "Our parents could have given us a lot more and we would have been spoiled and we would not have learned."

Don't miss: 4 secrets to raising wealthy kids, according to the billionaire Rockefeller family