At the Ritz-Carlton Dallas, a roomful of Dallas 500 types gathered Wednesday evening to hear about an upcoming art auction that’s been called “the sale of the century, and the last as well.” Going on the block at Christie’s in New York next month will be the personal Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller. The Wall Street Journal says the auction could fetch as much as $1 billion, more than any other estate sale. All the proceeds will go to about a dozen nonprofits the Rockefellers supported during their lifetimes, including Harvard University and the American Farmland Trust.
Announcement of the Wednesday gathering piqued my interest in part because, a few decades ago, I worked with, and then for, one of David’s nieces, who eventually would own the weekly newspaper in Santa Fe. She was one of the most decent publishers—and people—I’ve known, dedicated to the community’s well-being, and a respectful and thoughtful employer. (I still have her handwritten notes complimenting my rare good stories.) She spoke fondly of her “Uncle David” at “The Chase”—he was the chairman and CEO of Chase Manhattan Bank—and her home, too, was filled with tasteful quality art, displayed without ostentation.
So, I was intrigued to find my way Wednesday to a small reception room at the Ritz Dallas, which was filled with about 50 local businesspeople, art collectors, and philanthropists. They included Lucy Billingsley, Myrna and Bob Schlegel, Peggy Sewell, Gabriel Barbier-Mueller, Lynn and Roy Shelton, and Linda and Bill Custard. Threading among them were Rick Brettell, the art historian, and Dr. Hobson Wildenthal, both of UT Dallas; and Capera Ryan, deputy chairman at Christie’s Auction House in Dallas, and Marc Porter, the New York-based chairman of Christie’s Americas.
It was Porter who’d helped Christie’s edge out Sotheby’s to reel in the Rockefeller sale back in 2013. That was four years before David, the last surviving grandson of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller, died at the age of 101. (David’s wife Peggy was 80 when she died in 1996.) Porter said he was in North Texas this week to “present the Rockefeller collection in all its breadth, from the most to the least expensive items. It will be the largest single-owner sale in history, and I’m talking to people about that.”
In a little while a slick video was played for the group describing the collection. It includes more than 2,000 objects, ranging from European furniture and porcelain dinner services to art masterpieces by the likes of Paul Cézanne, Edward Hopper, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. The video was followed by remarks from Brettell, a former director of the Dallas Museum of Art. Brettell told his audience that he’d met David Rockefeller in Dallas through Margaret McDermott, the local art and philanthropy doyenne. “I asked him, ‘What brings you to Dallas?'” Brettell recalled. “He said, ‘Margaret McDermott and business.'”
Once, Brettell said, Rockefeller wanted to see the DMA’s Wendy Reeves collection—”This is much better that we think it is in New York,” he pronounced afterward—while, on another visit, he asked specifically to check out the museum’s “Apple Pickers” painting (1888 or 1889) by Camille Pissarro. After sitting and pondering the work for a while with Brettell, Rockefeller said, “Rick, I have a Seurat and a Signac. I never thought Pissarro was a great neo-Impressionist. … But, this is a major work of art, and I was wrong about Pissarro.”
Porter, the Christie’s chairman, declined to comment on reports that the auction house had guaranteed the Rockefeller family the collection would bring in at least $650 million. That figure would be $166 million more than the amount the estate of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, the current single-owner record-holder, raked in nearly a decade ago. But, what about that WSJ prediction of $1 billion for the Rockefeller auction? “I’m saying $500 million,” Porter said with a smile.