The biggest surprises from the RM3.3b Rockefeller auction

The duck decoy market, apparently, is very strong


At David Rockefeller’s three-day long, US$828 million (RM3.27 billion) estate sale at Christie’s in New York, artworks by such big names as Picasso, Matisse and Gauguin sold for hundreds of millions of dollars. There was also a profusion of statuary, antiques, silverware, and what can only be called very high-end knickknacks. Miniature porcelain statues of shepherds may not have been fashionable since the 18th century, but for a brief, very expensive moment this week, they surely were hot: One winsome Meissen figure sold for US$25,000, five times its high estimate.

Similarly, the type of dark, wooden furniture favoured by Rockefeller hasn’t been showcased in design magazines in decades, but in last Wednesday and Thursday’s day sales, bidders couldn’t get enough of it. One tripod table sold for US$13,750, above a high estimate of US$5,000, and an armchair went for US$35,000, above its high estimate of US$6,000.

This sudden popularity of historical decoration “suggests two things”, wrote David Rockefeller Jr in an email. “First, that there are many people who, quite touchingly, would like to have ‘a piece of the Rock’ — as you might call it — at a reasonable price.” Second, he wrote, “the buying public increasingly recognises quality both in utilitarian objects (like chairs and silverware) and in strictly decorative objects as well”.

It’s undeniable that the Rockefeller name is a major draw. It’s also possible that the Rockefeller sale, with its global, multimillion-dollar marketing effort spearheaded by Christie’s, made buyers realise that there’s an aesthetic that transcends the so-called “five-star hotel” style of generic, location-less good taste.

It’s anyone’s guess, but what we do know is that, amid the thousands of objects that sold this week, 10 stood out.

Silver Worth Its Weight in Gold

A Mexican silver ice pail, circa 1995

A silver ice pail, purchased by Rockefeller in Mexico in 1995, was estimated to sell from US$800 to US$1,200. After furious bidding by phone, Internet and in the room, it hammered to a man sitting at the rear of the auction house. With premium, its total was a stunning US$50,000.

A New Record for Fairfield Porter

There was never doubt that the spectacular pieces of blue chip European art would sell. How the American art, which can sometimes appeal to a more limited audience (there are probably fewer Maine landscape paintings on the walls of Bavarian schlosses than Rembrandt landscapes in Manhattan apartments), would fare was a more open-ended question. Happily, many of the American works in Rockefeller’s collection went gangbusters, including this absolutely gorgeous 1965 painting by Fairfield Porter, The Schooner II. Estimated from US$1 million to US$1.5 million, it set a new record for the artist when it sold for US$1.93 million.

Double Rockefeller Provenance

A late George III polychrome-painted, satinwood, double-sided writing table

“The most stunning success so far among the decorative works,” David Rockefeller Jr noted. “Was a George III writing table at which my mother used to write her eloquent morning letters.” The table had been acquired in 1913 by John D Rockefeller Jr (David Rockefeller’s father), who used it at Kykuit, the family’s New York estate, until 1960. The piece has been in the family, in other words, for generations, and that seemed a powerful draw for multiple bidders. Estimated to sell from US$8,000 to US$12,000, it sold, with premium, for US$360,500.

The Most Expensive Picnic Ever?

A present made to David Rockefeller by King Hassan II of Morocco in 1986, this wicker basket and picnic set from Asprey & Co contained ruby glass drink ware bearing the king’s monogram, silver-plated serving ware including a “silver-plated sugar caster” from Christofle, a set of flatware for 12 (including dinner forks, luncheon forks and cold meat forks), all stored in a red-leather-lined interior. It was estimated to sell for US$10,000. Its final price: US$212,500.

A Duck that Costs More Than a House

If one thing was certain when the (gold) dust settled at the end of the Rockefeller sale, it was that the duck decoy market remains bullish. This whistling swan, made by John Haynes Williams (main picture) in 1910, sold for US$348,500, more than double its high estimate of US$150,000.

An Actual Bargain

Watching the sales, it was easy to get jaded as record followed record. If a work didn’t sell for multiples of its high estimate, it felt disappointing. So when Pierre Bonnard’s Boulevard des Batignolles, estimated to sell for US$800,000 to US$1.2 million, sold for just US$250,000, it was genuinely shocking. That’s particularly true when it comes to this work, which Rockefeller bought in 2006 for US$856,000. Whoever bought it, in other words, paid less than a third of what Rockefeller had paid — more than a decade later.

Bowled Away

Before the sale, Christie’s representatives had spoken of a strong level of interest from Asian bidders. Without knowing just how many lots sold to people in the region, numerous lots that would appeal to Asian buyers skyrocketed past their original estimates. For instance, a blue and white bowl from the Chinese Xuande period (1426-1435), which the Rockefellers had kept in their house in Maine, carried a high estimate of US$150,000 and sold for US$2.8 million.

Porcelain Mania

Two Meissen Porcelain models of Hoopoes (circa 1740)

Meissen figurines were sought-after for centuries for their delicacy, inventive design and craftsmanship, and Rockefeller collected dozens. This pair of hoopoes from 1740 was particularly desirable, given its pre-Rockefeller provenance: Once owned by Catalina von Pannwitz, a very wealthy woman of Jewish descent who married into the Prussian nobility, it was subsequently purchased by oil executive Charles Wrightsman, who donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum subsequently sold it to Laurance Rockefeller. After his death in 2004, it was acquired by his brother, David. That was apparently a sufficiently glamorous pedigree for someone who bid the figurines up past their US$30,000 high estimate. The total: US$175,000.

American History X (10)

George Washington (Vaughan type) by Gilbert Stuart (1795)

Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) painted more than 100 portraits of George Washington. His methodology consisted of making a single portrait, then painting several exact copies of that portrait, and then starting a new series based on a new original. Each series of Washington portrait by Stuart is known by the name of the original portrait’s owner. (If you’re still following this, you deserve a prize.) This portrait, made in 1795, was part of the so-called Vaughan series (named after the first painting’s owner, John Vaughan), and is arguably Stuart’s most famous. Rockefeller’s painting carried a high estimate of US$1.2 million and sold for nearly 10 times that amount, totalling, with premium, US$11.6 million.

A Very Expensive Surrey

The extension-top surrey, American (late 19th-early 20th centuries)

Rockefeller was known to drive a horse and carriage for fun around his estate in Westchester, and several of the buggies and surreys he used came up to auction. The estimates were admittedly almost absurdly low; this one, from the late 19th or early 20th centuries, carried a high estimate of US$2,500. Even so, its total of US$81,250 is surprising. That’s a 3,100% increase. — Bloomberg