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Two Takes on How Christie’s Won the Rockefeller Consignment (plus: CultureGrrl’s Video Tour)

How did Christie’s manage to best Sotheby’s in landing the hotly contested, monumental David Rockefeller consignment? That trove goes on the block next week, led by this waif, who carries the sales’ heftiest presale estimate on her fragile shoulders.

Picasso, “Fillette à la Corbeille Fleurie,” 1905
Presale estimate: about $100 million
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Ask why she’s gone to Christie’s, and you’ll get two different answers, depending on which auction house you speak to.

Marc Porter, chairman of Christie’s Americas, told me his firm had won the prize on the strength of its expertise and success in marketing large collections globally.

“Didn’t the financial arrangements have something to do with it?” I asked him pointedly.

“We don’t talk about that.”

Marc Porter
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Hugh Hildesley, Sotheby’s executive vice president and vice chairman, Americas, believes it was all about the size of the guarantee—the amount that an auction house promises to pay coveted consignors, regardless of the actual level of the bidding at the sale. For the most desirable, priciest property, Sotheby’s can’t go as high as Christie’s can, Hildesley admitted.

“We’re a public company,” he told me, “and we can’t take the risk.” (Sotheby’s painful experience with the A. Alfred Taubman sales was a cautionary tale.)

Hugh Hildesley perusing Sotheby’s offerings at its presale exhibition for Impressionist, modern and contemporary art
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Outsiders can’t know the details of the arrangement that won Christie’s the Rockefeller trove, but we do know, from the cataloguing, that “Christie’s has a direct financial interest [i.e., a guarantee] in all the lots offered for sale.” I assume that would amount to the biggest guarantee in auction-house history: The total presale estimate is “in excess of $500 million” for the entire consignment of more than 1,000 items of decorative art and 550 works of fine art. Some of those guarantee risks may be offset by third parties.

Yet to be determined is whether the estimates will be outrun by a Rockefeller Effect—the potential price boost from an illustrious provenance. A Christie’s spokesperson told me that the estimates are “based on the individual works themselves. It is the market that will determine at sale time the added value of Rockefeller provenance.”

That said, estimates of the priciest paintings have jumped considerably since the initial press release was issued last November. For example, the Picasso “Fillette,” now estimated at about $100 million, was then estimated “in the region of $70 million,” in the words of the November press release.

I believe that, in the end, the quality of the objects themselves will dictate prices. It should be noted that some of the cream of his collection was skimmed off by the museums to which Rockefeller made important bequests. For lesser works, there could even be Rockefeller Fatigue, caused by such a huge volume of stuff being thrown at a market that can only absorb so much at one time.

Although Christie’s has adopted the slogan (and the Twitter hashtag), “Live Like a Rockefeller,” as a come-on to souvenir hunters, David wasn’t a celebrity with the magnetism of Elizabeth Taylor or Andy Warhol, whose estates benefited from their popular cachet. He was a wealthy banker.

Nonetheless, CNBC reporter/editor Robert Frank recently declared: “As a measure of their continued stature, the Rockefeller name can add a premium of 50 percent or more on works of art and collectibles.” As an example, he cited the Rothko that David famously consigned 11 years ago to Sotheby’s (a drama in which I played a bit part).

Rothko, “White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose),” 1950, sold for $72.84 million at Sotheby’s in May 2007

What Robert Frank didn’t mention was that the price for the Rockefeller Rothko was outstripped five years later by the $86.88-million David Pincus Rothko, which to my eyes (and to the market?) was an even finer example.

Was there a “Pincus Effect”? I don’t think so…

Rothko, “Orange, Red, Yellow,” 1961, $86.88 million, sold at Christie’s in May 2012
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Although MoMA was David’s main squeeze, he also deposited this delectable crumb at the Metropolitan Museum as a partial and promised gift, now in permanent residence at the museum, where I recently photographed it:

Manet, “The Brioche,” 1870, Metropolitan Museum, gift and bequest of David and Peggy Rockefeller
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Proceeds from the Christie’s auctions will go to 12 philanthropies favored by David Rockefeller during his lifetime, including the Museum of Modern Art, where he had served as chairman.

Come join me now for some further analysis, as we take an irreverent look at Christie’s sweeping installation of Rockefeller’s eclectic, over-the-top possessions, with a sighting of Cleveland Museum director William Griswold and a cameo by Christie’s deputy chairman for Impressionist and modern art, Conor Jordan, who relates how David came to possess his Picasso “Fillette.”

Then we’ll walk a few blocks north to the Museum of Modern Art, to view its memorial display of the Rockefeller masterpieces that Christie’s didn’t get:

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