The Rockefeller Name Proves Mighty Indeed at Christie’s Record $646 Million Sale of Storied Masterpieces

The sale set seven new records and is the highest-grossing single-owner auction to date.

Claude Monet, Nymphéas en fleur (circa 1914–17). Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.

Christie’s evening auction of 19th- and 20th-century artworks from the prestigious Peggy and David Rockefeller collection—the first and most important of a planned series—pulled in a staggering $646.1 million tonight. It is the highest total ever achieved in a single-owner auction, beating the previous high of $484 million garnered in Paris in 2009 for the collection of fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé.

All in all it was an epic night, with many of the art world’s top dealers in attendance and plenty of heated competition for the blue-chip works on offer. Seven new auction records were set, including for Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Eugène Delacroix, Armand Séguin, Giorgio Morandi, Odilon Redon, and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.

According to artnet News’s calculations, the expectation for the night ranged from roughly $483 million to $531 million—with the night’s actual tally coming in far above that.

All 44 lots on offer found buyers, though this is perhaps 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 intense battle of the evening came for Claude Monet’s Nymphéas en fleur (circa 1914–17), which was estimated in the region of $50 million. After auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen opened bidding at $36 million, the signature Impressionist painting was instantly chased by various Christie’s specialists on the phone banks bidding for individual clients. With bids racing into the high $50 million range, there were still five bidders in hot pursuit—prompting Pylkkänen to quip that it was like “a tennis game with five rackets.”

The protracted fight eventually came down to a two-way bidding war between Francis Outred, head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s in London, and Xin Li, deputy chairman of Christie’s Asia Pacific. With bids surpassing $70 million, the two duked it out while the rapt crowd looked on. In the end, Xin Li—who has been referred to as the auction house’s “secret weapon” in courting and handling Asian buyers—decisively lifted her bid from $72 million to $75 million, finally winning the work. With premium, the final price was $84.7 million.


Pablo Picasso, Fillette à la corbeille fleurie (1905). Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.

Pablo Picasso, Fillette à la corbeille fleurie (1905). Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

By contrast, the action for the evening’s star lot—Pablo Picasso’s Rose-period Fillette à la corbeille fleurie (1905)—was a far more subdued affair, even if it won the highest price of the night by far. It was estimated in the region of $100 million, with bidding opening at a hefty $90 million. From there, Christie’s co-chairman of postwar and contemporary art Loïc Gouzer quickly bumped it up to $98 million. Bidding ground to a halt at $102 million, still with Gouzer’s client, but Pylkkänen hung on for what seemed like an eternity, repeating the offer and inviting more bids before finally accepting that none were forthcoming and bringing the gavel down.

With premium, the final price for the painting was $115 million. The whole process took less than three minutes, and most of that period consisted of the auctioneer trying unsuccessfully to coax more bids.

One of the painting’s former owners, Gertrude Stein, was initially not a fan of the work when her brother Leo acquired it. At the time of her death in 1946, it passed as part of her collection to her partner, Alice B. Toklas. When the latter died in 1967, Rockefeller created a consortium of friends to buy the paintings. Having put in a million dollars each, they drew lots from a felt hat to determine who had first pick. David Rockefeller drew number one, and chose the girl with her basket of flowers.

Up until Rockefeller’s death last year at the age of 101, the painting hung on the wall his Upper East Side mansion in New York. Since the painting was not a favorite of his wife Peggy’s, he kept it facing his desk in his library.

Expectations for the work were certainly high, given that the last Rose Period Picasso, Boy With a Pipe (1905) was the first painting to crack the $100 million mark at auction when it was sold from the John Hay and Betsy Whitney collection at Sotheby’s in 2004 for $104 million. Perhaps Christie’s thought the market had come far farther since then.

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Henri Matisse, Odalisque coucheé aux magnolias (1923). Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

Henri Matisse’s Odalisque coucheé aux magnolias (1923), estimated in the region of $70 million, was (literally) guaranteed to set a new record considering that the current auction high—set in 2010 for a Matisse bronze—is $48.8 million. Bidding opened at $58 million and was eventually hammered down, again to Xin Li, bidding for a client, at around $70 million. With premium, the final price was $80.8 million.

Georges Seurat, <i>La rade de Grandcamp</i> (1885). Courtesy Christies's Images Ltd.

Georges Seurat, La rade de Grandcamp (1885). Courtesy Christies’s Images Ltd.

Also among the top lots was Georges Seurat’s La rade de Grandcamp (1885), which carried a pre-sale estimate in the region of $40 million. Bidding opened around $22 million and was hammered down to a gentlemen seated in the front of the room for $30 million. The final price, with premium, was $34 million.

Eugène Delacroix, <i>Tiger Playing with a Tortoise</i> (1862). Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.

Eugène Delacroix, Tiger Playing with a Tortoise (1862). Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

Estimated at $7 million to $10 million, Eugène Delacroix’s Tiger Playing With a Tortoise (1862) sold to a woman bidding in the room for $5.7 million. The final price of $9.8 million (including premium) exceeded the previous record of $7.7 million set two decades ago in 1998—a sign of just how rare it is for the artist’s work to come on the market.

Paul Gauguin, La Vague (1888). Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.

Paul Gauguin, La Vague (1888). Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

Paul Gauguin’s La Vague (1888), meanwhile, scored $35.2 million, roughly double the $18 million estimate. The painting was a fitting symbol for the evening, since there was little stopping the surging tide of the Rockefeller collection at Christie’s.

The Rockefeller sales continue with an auction of American Art slated for tomorrow evening.

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