The Rockefellers and Chicago





In town to talk about Christie’s upcoming May auction of the David Rockefeller Estate in New York—already being called the Sale of the Century, with an expected estimate of $650 million, which could make it the highest grossing auction in history—Marc Porter, Christie’s Chair for the Americas, revealed the sale’s important Chicago connection.


Marc Porter.

“With the exception of New York, Chicago is the city with the most significant connection to the Rockefeller family. Not only did they found the University of Chicago and the Oriental Institute, but David received his PhD in economics from the University of Chicago. David’s interest in archeology and anthropology was directly related to his family’s significant pieces now housed at the Oriental Institute.

 “Chicago is woven through the auction, as well. The great Matisse in our sale, Odalisque with Magnolias from 1923, previously belonged to Chicagoan Leigh Block, who chaired the board of the Art Institute. A further extraordinary coincidence is that the small Paul Klee in the auction previously belonged to Mies van der Rohe, who played such an important role in Chicago’s architecture.”


Matisse, Odalisque with Magnolias (1923).


Paul Klee, Bouquet of Autumn Leaves.

Cathy Busch, Managing Director of Christie’s Midwest Regional Office, who arranged for Marc’s visit this weekend, remarked:

“Marc Porter is a visionary—an individual who is respected for his intellect, creativity, and discretion—and a key influencer within the art world. It’s truly a career highlight to be associated with the Rockefeller family in this effort, and I am certain that my colleagues across the globe share the sentiment.

“Excitement is mounting for the May auction because collectors and the media are finally getting a glimpse of the extraordinary property highlights, which reflect the family’s intellectual and artistic interests. Chicago plays a significant role in the scheme of the auction because of the deep Rockefeller roots in the city, and because our sophisticated collecting community appreciates works of art and objects of highest quality. 

“I like the Paul Klee connection. Peggy and David Rockefeller added Klee’s Bouquet of Autumn Leaves to their collection in 1959. This watercolor on burlap was painted during Klee’s last year at the Bauhaus, and Mies would have been director of the Bauhaus in Dessau in 1930, the year the work was painted.”


Cathy Busch.


David and Peggy at their 1940 wedding. Image (c) Rockefeller Archive Center.


David and JFK. Image (c) Rockefeller Archive Center.


David Rockefeller. Image (c) Rockefeller Archive Center.

In his lifetime, David Rockefeller, who died at 101 last March, and his wife, Peggy, gave $1 billion to charity. Proceeds from the Christie’s sale will be divided between 12 nonprofit organizations.


John Singer Sargent, San Geremia (1913).


Willem de Kooning, Untitled XIX (1982).

We asked Marc what it’s like to choreograph an auction of this enormity:

“Some of the greatest paintings of the past three and four decades will be coming up for auction, and my job is to plan the sales and choreograph the themes and values. I work on the order of what comes up when, which theatrically tells the story of the collection. I then turn it over to the auctioneer.

“I am especially delighted that half of the auction will be conducted online only, with many of the decorative arts and less expensive pieces appearing there, some with estimates as low as $200.

“We have tried to portray a sense of the variety of homes where Peggy and David Rockefeller have lived. Are we sometimes surprised with results of a particular item at auction? Every day!”


Pablo Picasso, Fillette a la corbeille fleurie (1905).


The Picasso as it was in the library of the Rockefeller’s East 65th Street townhouse.

Twin interests in art history and social history came alive as Marc and others put the auction together: 

“The Rockefellers so impacted the 20th and 21st centuries, both through business and philanthropy. There are so many themes and facets in their lives. From their earliest days, they were global in thinking, traveling long ago to Asia, Japan, and Korea. As they founded the University of Chicago, they were beginning what would become the leading medical school in China.”


A large gilt-figure of Buddha, China (17th-18th century).


Portrait of the Artist Reza ‘Abbasi by Mu’in Musavir, Isfahan, Iran.

“They developed a great interest in American culture and collected the American landscape, including works by Hopper and Georgia O’Keefe. It was a trip out west that they made as family when David would have been a boy, in the late 1920s, that led the family to create Grand Teton National Park and a redwood grove in California.”


Georgia O’Keeffee, Near Abiqiu, New Mexico (1931).

“David and Peggy Rockefeller collected both French and Chinese export porcelain. A Sevres set made at Fontainbleau for Napoleon accompanied him on his first exile to Elba.”


Selections from a Sevres porcelain dessert service from the ‘Marly Rouge Service’ made for Napoleon Iere, circa 1807-1809.

The international highlights tour is in full swing. Cathy reports:

“Private viewings have taken place in New York, and the public exhibition is now open in London, Hong Kong, Paris, Beijing, Los Angeles, and Shanghai. The full presentation and auction will take place in Rockefeller Center, of course.”


Claude Monet, Camille assise sur la plage a Trouville (1870-71).


A pair of meissen porcelain models of golden orioles, circa 1750.


Vincent van Gogh, Planteuse de betteraves (1885).

Marc described David as a global thinker, humble and modest but always intent to learn new things.

His great emphasis was on lifelong learning and public service. His early passion for beetles—and subsequent enormous collection—began when he first saw an Egyptian scarab. He had a lifelong history of applied intellect.”

Peggy Rockefeller’s contribution was significant:

It was a collection they made together as is the case with many families. Rockefeller women were very influential and sophisticated. David’s mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, co-founded the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The women in the family continue to be as involved as the men today.”


Peggy Rockefeller, 1973. Image (c) Rockefeller Archive Center.

Cathy Busch and Marc Porter’s recent Chicago presentation on the Rockefeller auction adds to the growing excitement. A favorite of many Chicagoans for her thoughtfulness, wisdom, and humor, Cathy told us about a favorite past auction:

“Just prior to joining Christie’s, I worked quite intimately on the sale of the collection of President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan, which was personally gratifying for me because of my longtime relationship with the Reagans. The Christie’s team was highly professional and creative across all departments and executed the massive effort with the dignity and elegance it deserved.

“Incidentally, the auction was 100 percent sold out. Still missing those cowboy boots with the Presidential Seal.”


Photo credit: CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD. 2018