Over the summer, Christie’s announced that it had seized the consignment of the estate of David Rockefeller, a storied collection that has a speculated estimate of $700 million—a figure that would make it the biggest estate ever auctioned, beating out the $484-million sale of work owned by Yves Saint Laurent.
Now, the auction house has revealed that it will be selling the first batch of work in a standalone sale in spring 2018 at its New York salesroom—which is, in a not-so-coincidental way, housed in Rockefeller Center. The auction is being billed as “the most significant philanthropic auction ever presented,” seeing as all the estate’s proceeds will go to charities that David Rockefeller and his wife, Peggy, championed during their lifetimes.
Highlights include Picasso’s Fillette à la corbeille fleurie (1905), a Rose Period masterwork estimated at $70 million. The painting has an impeccable provenance. It was first purchased by Gertrude Stein and her brother, Leo, as they were just starting to build a collection. They bought it from the French clown-turned-art-dealer Clovis Sagot for $30, despite the fact that Gertrude initially hated the work, and threw a fit when Leo bought it anyway. At the time, Picasso was just 23 years old, and for the Steins, it was the first major acquisition for a collection that would become, as the New York Times put it in 1968, “For all intents and purposes . . . the first museum of modern art.”
It has since remained in private hands, and fascinated many who had the chance to glimpse it. Ernest Hemingway mentions seeing it in Stein’s Paris apartment in A Moveable Feast: “I took another sip of the eau-de-vie and pitied the old man and looked at Picasso’s nude of the girl with the basket of flowers.” After Stein’s death in 1946, it was passed along with the rest of the collection to her partner Alice B. Toklas, and upon her death in 1967, the horde of masterpieces was to be offered to a group of MoMA board members, including William S. Paley, John Hay Whitney, and the Rockefellers. They drew slips from a hat to see who would get first pick. David Rockefeller drew number one, and chose Fillette à la corbeille fleurie.
For decades, it remained in the library of their Upper East Side mansion, at 146 East 65th Street.
The sale in 2018 will also offer Matisse’s Odalisque couchée aux magnolias (1923), one of the most prized Matisse works to be sold at auction in decades. It’s estimated to sell for $50 million, which would break the current record of $41.1 million, set when Les coucous, tapis bleu et rose (1911) sold at the Saint Laurent auction. Peggy and David Rockefeller had lived with Odalisque couchée aux magnolias in their Westchester estate, Hudson Pines.
A third highlight is Monet’s Nymphéas en fleur (1914–17), which the Rockefellers purchased from the Paris dealer Katia Granoff after being set up by MoMA’s founding director, Alfred Barr. It is estimated to sell for $35 million.
The news was announced in Hong Kong, where an exhibition featuring the work will open at Christie’s headquarters before traveling to London, Los Angeles, and New York. The grand unveiling was timed to coincide with the evening sales in Hong Kong this week, but also highlighted the Rockefeller family’s long history with China, going back to when John D. Rockefeller began contributing to the Chinese missions in the mid-19th century.
“We are delighted to share this first exhibition which is designed to reintroduce these masterpieces to the world after generations of care and stewardship by the Rockefeller family, Marc Porter, the Christie’s chairman, Americas, said in a statement. “Our decision to begin the tour in Asia is in keeping with the Rockefeller family’s long commitment and philanthropic ties to the region, dating to John D. Rockefeller Sr.’s first charitable gift to China in 1863.”
The Rockefellers were big collectors of Asian art, and included in the sale are bronzes, bowls, and porcelain. More information about the date of the standalone sale and the rest of the lots will be released by Christie’s early next year.