The prices set a new auction high, yet the taste was from a bygone era.
Just 44 pictures from the collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller raised $646.1 million with fees in an auction at Christie’s on Tuesday. It took only two hours to become the biggest private-owner auction in history, not accounting for inflation. Friday morning, with the live sales completed (and one final online auction to come), the total had reached $828 million.
This result dwarfs the $443 million raised by Christie’s in 2009 for a three-day auction of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé.
The numbers declare the Rockefeller sale to be the single-owner auction of the decade. But unlike the Saint Laurent sale, or the $206.5 million dispersal by Christie’s of the collection of Victor and Sally Ganz in 1997 — which also set a single-owner high at the time — this event contained few of the 20th-century masterpieces coveted by today’s billionaire art buyers.
“They went round the galleries and bought nice paintings and hung them on the wall over homely pieces of English furniture,” John Whitehead, a London dealer who specializes in 18th century and early 19th century French porcelain, said of the Rockefellers’ approach to collecting.
They had a penchant, he said, for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, antique European furniture, and ceramics. “They weren’t bought as investments,” Mr. Whitehead added. “It was just stuff to live with.”
During the early 1950s, the couple was spending thousands on Sèvres and Spode dinner services at a time when a Jackson Pollock drip painting could be bought for $800. Though a long-serving chairman of the Museum of Modern Art, Mr. Rockefeller said in a 2003 interview with The Art Newspaper that he was often “startled and even angered and repulsed” by the provocations of contemporary artists, preferring the “comforting confines” of his own home, with Post-Impressionist art “glowing peaceably” around him.
As a result, the Rockefeller collection represented a distinctly old-fashioned taste in today’s contemporary dominated market. So how did it become the biggest single-owner auction in history?
Part of the answer is that so-called trophy art has become a lot more expensive.
It was widely noted on Tuesday that Xin Li Cohen, deputy chairman of Christie’s Asia, took the winning telephone bids of $84.7 million for Monet’s “Nymphéas en fleur” (Water Lilies in Bloom), and $80.8 million for Matisse’s 1923 “Odalisque couchée aux magnolias,” a nude on a striped chaise.
“The collection overall is very dowdy, very end of an era,” said Wendy Cromwell, an art adviser based in New York. She added, however, that many of the works on offer Tuesday night appealed to new buyers. “Millionaires are created every day in China, and they’re eager to acquire things that smack of the great capitalists of American society,” Ms. Cromwell said.
Thanks to their decorative appeal, the Monet and the Matisse both set auction highs for the artists. But bidding did not take off as it did last year when $110.5 million was given for a 1982 painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The Rockefellers’ 1905 Picasso, “Fillette à la Corbeille Fleurie” (Young Girl with Basket of Flowers), had been expected to eclipse that result, but the subject of a naked teenage waif proved problematic, and bidding was restrained. It sold to a telephone bidder for $115 million, just above the low estimate.
That a nine-figure price could be regarded as a relative disappointment indicates just how far values have climbed since the Saint Laurent sale in 2009.
Last year, the global population of individuals with net assets of at least $50 million reached 129,730, up 10 percent from a year earlier, according to the 2018 Wealth Report published in March by the British real estate firm Knight Frank, using data compiled by Wealth X.
The report estimated the world’s ultra-wealthy had a total worth of $26.4 trillion.
“Economic inequality has lots of down sides, but it has opened up the art market at the high end,” said Evan Beard, a national art services executive at U.S. Trust, a wealth-management unit of Bank of America. For Mr. Beard, the influx into the market of new, finance-minded collectors from across the world has been unprecedented.
“There’s so much liquidity squashing around, it’s driving up prices,” he said.
A telling case in point was Lot 2 in the Rockefeller auction. A fine 1914 Cubist still life of a violin on a table by the Spanish painter Juan Gris caused little excitement when it fell to a telephone bid of $31.8 million. In 2009, a similar, slightly smaller Gris still life of a violin, from 1913, sold at the Saint Laurent auction for 3.9 million euros, or $4.6 million at current exchange rates.
But art inflation is one thing, and the power of a name is another. It will never be possible to quantify exactly how much Rockefeller branding contributed to the success of the sale, but it was widely acknowledged as a significant factor.
“Rockefeller is one of the few names that has become a metonym,” Mr. Beard said. “Like Medici or Rothschild, Rockefeller is a metonym for wealth. Every one of these works has a Rockefeller premium.”
The auction slogan “Live like a Rockefeller,” cleverly prioritizing experience over possession, proved most effective for Christie’s on Wednesday during the day sale of porcelain services. Seemingly hopelessly out of step with the informal eating habits of today, these opulent relics of a bygone lifestyle achieved a succession of prices that were multiples of their estimates, lifted by global internet bidding.
The much-admired Sèvres “Marly Rouge” service, made for Napoleon, predictably made a spectacular, one-off price, reaching $1.8 million against a low estimate of $150,000. But it was the more unheralded ceramic lots, such as a 39-piece Coalport botanical dessert service from the early 19th century, that revealed the lure of the Rockefeller brand. Estimated at $7,000, it sold to a Chinese online bidder for $56,250, against competition from an online bidder from Oregon.
“It was not a leading-edge collection, but it was a great name,” said Ms. Cromwell, the New York art adviser.
But the numbers would have been even bigger had the Rockefellers bought Pollock rather than porcelain.
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