In 1968, David Rockefeller was part of an unusual syndicate formed by a small band of deep-pocketed collectors with close connections to the Museum of Modern Art which engineered a $6.8 million all-in arrangement with the heirs of Gertrude Stein to buy a group of artworks she had owned.
The banker, philanthropist and statesman was the perfect candidate for the syndicate, especially since his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller was one of the founders of the museum. In addition to David, his brother Nelson R. Rockefeller was also in the elite group, along with CBS head William S. Paley, publisher John Hay Whitney and Andre Meyer. David picked up a second chit since William A. Burden, one of the original syndicate members dropped out.
The members met on a Sunday in December 1968 in an old Whitney wing of the museum and drew straws from a crumpled felt hat for their choices, according to a published account by David Rockefeller. David was lucky, drawing the longest straw and chose Picasso’s stunning, Rose Period flower seller from 1905 for what was then something less than one million dollars.
Earlier this evening, as part of the first leg of sales from the estate of Peggy and David Rockefeller at Christie’s, that painting, dating to 1905 and standing a full five feet tall, sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for $115.1 million, against a pre-sale estimate in the region of $100 million, making it the second most expensive Picasso to sell at auction, behind “Les femmes d’Alger (verson ‘O’)” from 1955, which sold for $179.3 million at Christie’s in May, 2015.
There was a palpable feeling of anticipation in Christie’s salesroom in the lead-up to the sale. Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry was in the room, an unusual sight at an auction, and could be seen chatting with megadealer Larry Gagosian. Attendees hoping for fireworks may have been disappointed with the steady pace of the proceedings, but what the sale lacked in drama it made up for in a staggering sum: the 44 lots of 19th and 20th Century Art all sold—a rare “white glove” sale—and altogether fetched a staggering $646,133,594
That result easily hurdled pre-sale expectations set in excess of $490 million (a number of the top entries were “estimate on request” lots without the usual low-to-high estimate figures) and shattered the long-standing record for a single session, single owner sale set in Paris in February 2009 when Impressionist and Modern Art from the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge Collection fetched €206.1/$266.7 million. (The highest tally for any single auction session, however, still stands at $852.8 million, set at Christie’s New York in its November 2014 Post-War and Contemporary art.)
In the Yves Saint Laurent sale, elaborately staged at the Grand Palais, a Henri Matisse painting, “Les coucous, tapis bleu et rose” from 1911 made top lot and a record €35.9 million (est. €12-18 million), then the equivalent of $46.4 million. Tonight, a different Matisse, “Odalisque couchee aux magnolias” from 1923, bested that record, bringing in $80.75 million (estimate on request in the region of $70 million).
All prices reported include the hammer price plus the buyer’s premium for each lot sold, calculated at 25% of the hammer price up to and including $250,000, 20% of that part of the hammer price that’s over $250,000, up to and including $4 million and 12.5 % for anything above that.
All of the Rockefeller property was backed by a financial guarantee provided by Christie’s and a pell-mell assortment of thirteen third party backers announced by lot number only just before the start of the evening action. Remarkably, all of the proceeds from the sale, as well as subsequent ones this week and lots sold online, will go to Rockefeller supported philanthropies including the American Farmland Trust and Harvard University.
Ten of the 44 lots offered sold for over $15 million and of those, seven exceeded $30 million. And seven artist records were set, led by a Claude Monet “Nympheas” that fetched $84.6 million (estimate on request in the region of $70 million).
The evening got off to a fruitful start when Pablo Picasso’s exquisite and Cezanne-esque gouache and watercolor on paper “Pomme” from 1914, originally owned by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and given to the couple by Picasso as a Christmas present, made $3,972,500, soaring past its estimate of $1-1.5 million. Like many of the sale’s top entries, it was acquired as part of the syndicate.
Next up was Juan Gris’s Cubist styled still life, “La table musician” from May 1914, executed in gouache, colored wax crayons, charcoal and paper collage on canvas. It brought in $31,812,500 (unpublished estimate in the region of $20 million). The Rockefellers acquired the painting at Parke-Bernet Galleries, a forerunner of what would become Sotheby’s in America, in March 1966 for $45,000.
Following the Gris was a 19th century wild life entry, Eugene Delacroix’s magnificent and playful “Tigre jouant avec un tortue” from 1862, which realized a record $9,875,000 (est. 5-7 million).
The price points aimed higher with Paul Gauguin’s rather radical, bird’s eye view of “La Vague” from 1888, featuring a Hokusai-influenced wave, giant rocks and two tiny figures in the Brittany surf that brought $35,187,500 (estimate on request in the region of $18 million). It last appeared in public in 2002 at the Metropolitan Museum’s aptly titled “the Lure of the Exotic—Gauguin in New York Collections.”
A second, more traditional and ravishingly color saturated Gauguin, “Fleurs dans un vase” from 1886-87 and worked again from 1893-95, went to an anonymous telephone bidder for $19,437,500 (est. $5-7 million). It last sold at auction at Christie’s New York in May 2006 for $4.5 million.
Interiors and still lifes dominate the Rockefeller cache and in stand-out fashion, as evidenced by Pierre Bonnard’s generously scaled and light-filled “Interieur (Appartement de Bonnard a Paris)” from 1914 that realized $6,612,500 (est. on request in the region of $6 million).
Among the Rockefeller painterly crown jewels, Claude Monet’s cover lot, square format and gloriously purple hued “Nympheas en fleur” from circa 1914-17 and acquired by the art loving couple in June 1956 from M. Knoedler & Co. in New York, made a record $84,687,500 (est. on request in the region of $50 million). Five bidders, four on telephones, chased the painting in a marathon battle won by an (apparently) Asian bidder through the phone manned by Xin Li, deputy chairman of Christie’s Asia.
The couple benefitted in many acquisitions, including the Monet, from the sage advice of Alfred Barr, the Museum of Modern Art’s brilliant founding director.
In that same vein, the record Matisse odalisque also went to Xin’s bidder, though no paddle number was announced by ace auctioneer and Christie’s global president Jussi Pylkkanen, so one couldn’t tell if it was the same buyer of the record Monet.
Paul Signac’s sun swept, Pointillist seascape, “Portrieux La Comtesse (Opus no. 191)” from 1888 brought a rather anemic $13,812,500 (estimate on request in the region of $20 million). The couple acquired the painting at Parke-Bernet Galleries in November 1957 for $31,000.
Signac’s mentor, Georges Seurat made a bigger splash with “La rade de Grandcamp (Le port de Grandcamp)” from 1885 that sold to Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, seated in the front row of the salesroom, for a seeming bargain at $34,062,500 (estimate in the region of $40 million).
Buttonholed on the stairway outside the salesroom Tinterow would only say, “we did not buy the painting for the museum.”
When the Rose period Picasso came up, Pylkkanen opened bidding at a breathtaking $90 million and jogged along at $2 million increments until the hammer fell at a rather disappointing $102 million, presumably just $2 million or so above the confidential third party backer.
The pale and boyishly figured flower seller with startling dark eyes and holding up a small basket of red poppies, wears nothing but a pearl necklace. Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo acquired the work from the ne’er do well art dealer and former clown Clovis Sagot in 1905, for the equivalent of $30. Picasso reportedly bickered about the price but was hard up enough to accept his measly share. The picture was last seen in New York at the Museum of Modern Art’s “Masterpieces from the David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection-from Manet to Picasso” in 1994.
(Speaking of Manet, as in Edouard, his small jewel-like still life, “Lilas et roses” from 1882, no bigger than a sheet of typing paper, went to yet another telephone bidder for $12,968,750 (est. $7-10 million).)
Less known, though thoroughly rare and unquestionably top rated, Armand Seguin’s “Les delices de la vie,” from circa 1892-93, a stunning, four-panel screen in oil on canvas and laid down on board, depicting a rather hedonistic dance hall scene, sold for a record $7,737,500 (est. $1-1.5 million) to Geneva based art advisor Thomas Seydoux.
Exiting the ticket-entry-only salesroom, Seydoux described the painting as “a wonderful piece, really rare and of a high quality that’s hard to find.”
He was less impressed with the overall tenor of the auction, noting, “it seemed lacking in fire power. There are great results on paper but it was a bit slow,” a sentiment shared by several other expert observers.
After the sale, David Rockefeller Jr addressed press on behalf of his extended family. “We are now very well on our way to achieving the goal our parents set for their philanthropic legacy,” he said, “and we are eagerly looking forward to what the rest of this historic week will bring.” The Rockefeller cavalcade continues throughout the week, including tomorrow evening’s Art of the Americas auction.