No less than 22 world records were broken in Christie’s New York by the end of the auction week on 11 May – even if the sale fell short of the billion-dollar mark that some commentators predicted. At $833 million (£612m), it doubles the previous record for a single-origin sale, previously held by the $484m/£356m sale of designer Yves Saint Laurent’s estate in 2009 – also operated by Christie’s.

David Rockefeller David Rockefeller. Photo Les Stone. © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation.

David Rockfeller, an influential banker and civic leader, the last grandson of the oil baron John D. Rockefeller passed away in 2017. He and his wife Peggy McGrath Rockefeller (1915-1996) were enlightened collectors, and went on to acquire thousands of artworks and furniture pieces over their (long) lives. Committed to charity, they wished for their legacy to be beneficial to others, and all the profits from the sale will go to twelve charities selected by the family.

The Rockefeller sale at Christie’s The Rockefeller sale at Christie’s. Courtesy Christie’s.

The highest priced lot was a 1905 painting by Picasso titled Fillette à la corbeille fleurie (Girl with a flower basket). It might be hard to believe, but with a final price tag of $115million (£85m), it was actually a kind of disappointment, as it was sold to the first and only bidder. Strong sales also came from European artists, Claude Monet and Henri Matisse paintings setting new records prices at $84.7m (£62m) and $80.7m (£59m) respectively (all prices include fees). American art performed especially well: a Gilbert Stuart oil portrait of George Washington sold for $11.6m/8,5m, and Diego Rivera’s The Rivals brought nearly $10m (£7.3m) – a record for Latin-American Art.

La rade de Grandcamp (Le port de Grandcamp, 1885), Georges Seurat La rade de Grandcamp (Le port de Grandcamp, 1885), Georges Seurat. Courtesy Christie’s.

Decorative objects made up the majority of the sale, with 817 lots. David and Peggy Rockfeller were fervent collectors of 18th century English furniture and porcelain – pieces they lived with and not just stored. “The collection exemplifies the connoisseurship of the Rockefellers in what they bought in a beautiful, relaxed fashion”, Philip Hewat-Jaboor, chairman of the Masterpiece fair in London, said. In a market that has taken a marked downturn since 2008, a whole new set of records was broken. Twenty-one pieces from a Sèvres dessert service made in 1807 for Emperor Napoleon I sold for $1.8m (£1.3m), fetching six times its estimate after fierce bidding.

Rebecca Wei with Claude Monet’s Nymphéas en fleur Nymphéas en fleur (c.1914-1917), Claude Monet. Courtesy Christie’s.

The Rockefeller name is a legend of its own, and a strong emotional connection might explain some of the prizes, that went beyond Christie’s expectations. “I am surprised at how much more the decorative arts are making than estimate”, Marc Porter, the chairman of Christie’s Americas, said. “I expected some Rockefeller premium, but not the multiples of five to 10.” For example, a 14-karat-gold money clip depicting the Rockefeller Center sold for a staggering $75,000 (£55,000) – it was estimated at just $1,200 (£900)!

Peggy and David Rockefeller Peggy and David Rockefeller. Photo Arthur Lavine.

Christie’s savvy marketing techniques and international promotion of the sale are also a key to its success. The auction house toured the highlights to three continents over the past months, and bids poured online from all over the world. Most of the successful bids during the sale actually came from outside the packed flagship auction rooms in… Rockefeller Center, Manhattan.

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