Rockefeller Mania Continues at Christie’s With a Record $106 Million American Art Sale
The fireworks may not have matched yesterday evening, but the sale set several records and a new high mark for American art.
Christie’s second consecutive evening sale of the Peggy and David Rockefeller collection, which offered a top-notch selection of art from North and South America, realized $106 million tonight. Soaring past the presale estimate of $45.4 million to $66.75 million, the sale marked the highest total ever achieved for an American art auction. The works on the block ranged from classic Edward Hopper and John Singer Sargent landscapes to more Modern wares, including an Alexander Calder sculpture and a vibrant Willem de Kooning abstract.
To date, Christie’s dedicated Rockefeller sales have made $764.4 million—and there are three more live sales and a variety of online sales still to come. This evening’s affair was quieter and far less packed than last night’s European art auction, which generated a smashing $646 million total.
Indeed, the entire result for tonight’s sale was less than the amount paid for one Rose Period Picasso painting last night. Nevertheless, the evening was a resounding success on its own merits—even if the category pulls in a more niche crowd. The sale set seven new artist records, including for Gilbert Stuart, Charles Sheeler, and Diego Rivera. Notably, the new high mark for Rivera doubled as the highest price ever achieved for a Latin American artwork at auction.
Throughout their decades of collecting, the Rockefellers acquired an eclectic variety of objects, from porcelain to duck decoys to blue-chip art. But Christie’s has placed a big bet that the provenance will attract bidders far and wide. So far, they seem to be right. All 41 lots on offer found buyers—though this in and of itself is not surprising given that Christie’s guaranteed the entire Rockefeller collection, and it is not known where reserves (the undisclosed minimum price at which a work can sell) had been set.
The most hotly contested lot of the night was one of the most contemporary works: Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XIX (1982), for which bidding opened at $3.5 million on an estimate of $6 million to $8 million. As bids swiftly rose to $9 million, the contest came down to a two-way bidding war between specialist Maria Los, deputy chairman and head of client advisory for the Americas, and megadealer Larry Gagosian, who was seated in the room speaking on a cell phone.
The two went head to head in $100,000 increments all the way up to $12.4 million, when the work was claimed by Los’s client. Despite the intensity, there were moments of levity: In response to repeated pauses and shrugs from Gagosian about whether another bid from his client was forthcoming, auctioneer Tash Perrin—who was a wild success in her debut as an evening auctioneer—gently chided him: “Does that mean a bid? That might be one expensive shrug.” Gagosian eventually surrendered; Los’s client won the work for a premium-inclusive $14.3 million.
David Rockefeller, who maintained a taste for more traditional names, acquired the painting after the death of his wife, Peggy, in 1996. In his memoir, he admitted he shared some of his father’s skepticism “about new and unfamiliar art forms, but my eye nevertheless became increasingly accustomed to them through Mother’s activities.” (David’s mother, Abby Rockefeller, co-founded the Museum of Modern Art in 1929.)
The painting itself reflects the “radical transformation” in de Kooning’s style during the last decade of his life, Christie’s specialist Sara Friedlander has noted—a style that gained recognition in the 2011 de Kooning retrospective at MoMA, which is also a beneficiary of the sale.
The action in the salesroom was far more subdued for another star lot, Edward Hopper’s Cape Ann Granite (1928), the only other work in the sale to carry an estimate as high as $6 million to $8 million. Hopper executed the work in the summer of 1928, when he and his wife Jo traveled to Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Perrin opened bidding at $3.2 million and it elicited a string of bids before quickly being hammered down to a woman in the room for $7.2 million ($8.4 million with premium). The landscape last appeared at auction more than three decades ago, when the Rockefellers bought it at Sotheby’s New York for $522,500.
Diego Rivera’s The Rivals (1931), estimated at $5 million to $7 million, was also the subject of a two-way bidding fight between Christie’s specialists. It eventually sold for $8.4 million ($9.8 million with premium).
Abby Rockefeller commissioned the work from Rivera and kept it in her collection until the early 1940s, when she gave it to her son, David. The artist was said to have been trying hard to impress Abby with the work—particularly since she was the principal supporter of his 1931 MoMA retrospective. The scene is inspired by the Mexican fiesta “Las Velas,” an annual tradition in the Oaxaca region for which women wear embroidered blouses, gold jewelry and pulled-back hair.
The Rockefeller name also burnished a less living room-ready work: Alexander Calder’s outdoor sculpture The Plow (1967), estimated at $2.5 million to $3.5 million. The Rockefellers commissioned the work in 1967; it has never been on the market before. It easily cleared its high estimate and sold for a final price of $5.2 million with premium.
Those who wanted a taste of Rockefeller’s office decor fought for Edward Hopper Rich’s House (1930), which previously hung in David Rockefeller’s Chase bank office. “It was one of his most cherished paintings,” according to Christie’s specialist William Haydock, “and he proudly displayed it in areas where he could see it with great regularity.” David and Peggy spotted Rich’s House in 1952 while visiting E. Weyhe, Inc., a gallery in New York that had been a favorite of his mother’s. The work sold for $3.2 million with premium, over its estimate of $2 million to $3 million.
Meanwhile, John Singer Sargent’s breathtaking 1913 Venice view, San Geremia, was another top seller, realizing $9.1 million after it sold to a client of Eric Widing, Christie’s deputy chairman and longtime American art expert.
Not surprisingly considering the contents of the sale, Widing was extremely active throughout the evening—and often came out on top. The buyer of the Sargent, for example, also acquired Albert Bierstadt’s oil on canvas Icebergs (circa 1883) for $552,500 as well as Thomas Moran’s The Entrance to the Grand Canal (1900) for $468,500.
The night was capped off with an intense and prolonged bidding war for the penultimate lot, Gilbert Stuart’s 1795 portrait of George Washington. It was estimated at $800,000 to $1.2 million but after a volley of bids from at least half a dozen Christie’s specialists, the action once again came down to a two-way bidding war: This time, between Christie’s Swiss art director Hans Peter Keller and a woman near the auction rostrum.
The battle lasted for a staggering $5.2 million—right up until the winning bid of $10 million, which prompted applause from the salesroom. With premium, the final price came in at $11.6 million—more than 10 times the estimated price. According to reports from Josh Baer, author of the art industry newsletter, The Baer Faxt, the winning bidder is Nancy Rosen, an advisor to former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and others.
This wasn’t the only Rockefeller sale to exceed expectations today. The first English and European furniture, ceramics, and decorative art sale realized $12.4 million. One buyer paid $1.8 million—more than six times the high estimate—for a 256-piece Sèvres dessert service once owned by Napoleon.
The final Rockefeller sale concludes on Friday, May 11.
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