The Art of Storytelling (and Marketing): How Christie’s Tailored the Rockefeller Narrative to Different Audiences Around the World
Working with the Rockefeller Archive Center, Christie's teased out a series of tales to give the Rockefeller collection maximum resonance the world over.
In 1966, Leo Castelli declared, “My responsibility is the myth-making of myth material—which, handled properly and imaginatively, is the job of a dealer—and I have to go at it completely.” In other words, successful art sales don’t just happen on their own. They grow from the seed of storytelling, the crafting of a narrative that connects an object to something greater and more valuable than itself.
In that sense, Christie’s auctions of the David and Peggy Rockefeller collection, which opened last night with a $646-million sonic boom, didn’t begin in New York City. It didn’t even begin in Hong Kong, where the house launched the collection with an exhibition of premier lots last November.
Instead, the sale began in Westchester County, New York, in a field stone estate commissioned by John D. Rockefeller for his second wife, Martha Baird Rockefeller. In 1974, the family converted the home into what is today the Rockefeller Archive Center, a publicly accessible research facility housing the family’s records dating back to the mid-19th century. It was in collaboration with the archive and its staff that Christie’s shaped not only a grand narrative for the collection, but a diverse array of smaller stories targeted to specific regions and demographics of collectors around the world.
A New Challenge
Last November, after the bidding for Salvator Mundi barreled past its expected endpoint like someone laid a brick on the gas pedal, much was made of Christie’s continent-hopping, multi-channel marketing strategy for the work. Alternately praised as “brilliant” and cast as the conjuring of a “dark art,” the campaign included a four-city world tour (London, Hong Kong, San Francisco, New York), a lavishly produced viral video, and the positioning of the painting as both “the last Leonardo” and “the male Mona Lisa”—all as a prelude to offering it, audaciously, in a postwar and contemporary sale.
But while the Rockefeller collection operated on a similar level of prestige as Salvator Mundi, it presented an entirely different strategic puzzle to solve. Comprising around 1,500 objects in categories ranging from pantheon-level Modern artworks to vintage duck decoys, the family’s disparate holdings demanded a strong connective narrative.
“We decided from the beginning the foundation stone was philanthropy,” explains Marc Porter, the chairman of Christie’s Americas. “We as a group—me and my colleague Amy Wexler, who is in charge of marketing… read as many of the Rockefeller biographies and histories as we could.”
At the same time, a single story would never be enough to convey the intricacies of the collection or the extent of the Rockefeller’s international impact. Porter says that the early research was driven by an attempt to understand how the family could have such broad collections in so many fields.
The process proceeded over roughly a year in concert with Peter Johnson, a historian at the Rockefeller Center Archives who has studied the family for the past four decades. Johnson first met with Christie’s officials shortly after the May 2, 2017 memorial service for David Rockefeller, who passed away that March.
“Christie’s had done some work prior to Mr. Rockefeller’s death sort of in-house, and they sent it over to me, and I said, ‘Well, this doesn’t quite work.’ It was much too general and a little too PR,” Johnson says. He urged the house to simultaneously think bigger and more specifically, explaining that the Rockefeller story is really “the story of the 20th century.”
To get a clearer view of this grand narrative, Christie’s staff visited the Rockefeller Archive Center. After that, Johnson says, the two sides “began to get on the same wavelength.”
The Center of Attention
The Rockefeller Archive Center has modest origins. According to Johnson, its existence stems from John D. Rockefeller’s habits as a bookkeeper, the future titan of industry’s first occupation. He kept a small booklet, known as Ledger A, in his coat pocket to track every transaction: income, expenses, gifts, and investments alike. In Johnson’s telling, Ledger A developed into Ledger B, C, D, E, F, and, eventually, into the Rockefeller archives as they exist today.
By Johnson’s estimate, the facility now includes close to 15,000 cubic feet of accounting records alone. The transactions bridge the mundane and the maximal. Examples include receipts for purchases of shirt collars, dividend records from the Standard Oil Company, investments in railroad lines, and contracts for swaths of land on Vancouver Island.
Yet the archive includes much more than transaction slips. In addition to 117 million pages of documents, the institution’s website lists over 900,000 photographs, 18,000 reels of microfilm, 6,000 films, and 45 terabytes of digital data.
“The Rockefellers simply kept a record of all these things mainly because John D. Rockefeller felt that you needed a good historical record in order to understand why you had done something, how much money you had given, what the follow-up was, the effect of a particular investment or philanthropic gift, those kinds of things,” Johnson says. “It’s all there, because they never threw anything away!”
The sprawling collection of photographs served as one of Christie’s entry points into the family’s history and global influence. It ultimately became the basis for a dedicated Instagram feed on the sale (@christiesrockefeller) and raw material for a series of videos produced on the family and the collection. The house also dedicated a full issue of its in-house magazine to the Rockefeller sale, where archival images from the trove illustrated family interviews and scholarly essays.
The immersion in Westchester pointed the way forward for these different avenues of storytelling. According to Porter, “It became clear that [the Rockefellers’] collecting matched their interests in all these cultures around the world, and we discovered the connections of the family to each one.”
An Eastern Premier
This thread ties back to Christie’s launch event for the Rockefeller sale in Hong Kong—the first time in the house’s more than 250-year history that it chose to debut a major collection in Asia. Although the region’s gathering market strength likely entered the equation in some capacity, Porter and Johnson both emphasized that the multi-stop global exhibition began there in part because of the dynasty’s deep and sustained support of causes in China, dating back to John D. Rockefeller’s first charitable contribution in 1863.
Johnson says that this inaugural philanthropy was directed toward missionaries working on “bringing the [Chinese] people to Christ.” But in the 1890s and early 1900s, he explained, “It became clear to the Rockefellers that you may be converting people to Christianity, but they’re still dying like flies because nobody’s doing anything about public health, or inoculation against diseases, or training doctors and nurses to actually deliver medical services.”
After a Rockefeller-funded medical commission concluded that “there was almost no work being done” using evidence-based medicine in China, the family founded the Peking Union Medical College, the first medical school in Asia, in 1917. PUMC, as it is still known, soon led to larger advances in Chinese public health, such as the construction of sewer systems, the creation of vaccination programs, and campaigns promoting basic sanitation measures like regular hand-washing. This avenue of Rockefeller philanthropy continued until the ascension of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, then resumed to some extent after the country’s reopening to the international community in the late 1970s.
Johnson visited Hong Kong with Christie’s for the November kick-off event. In his view, Asian attendees were generally familiar with the Rockefeller name beforehand, but not with the family’s decades-long commitment to bettering circumstances in China. “What Christie’s was really able to do was to supply details that were convincing, so that when we said, ‘The results of this auction and other portions of David’s personal estate would be going to philanthropic activities,’” it had a “particular resonance.”
Christie’s wove different stories from the family history elsewhere. In the Persian Gulf, for instance, Porter says that the house presented the Rockefellers as a blueprint for how to build culture by deploying vast wealth “into universities, museums, [and] medical institutions,” just as the Rockefellers did by founding the University of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, and Rockefeller University and its hospital. In his words, “This model of how you turn a fortune into a betterment of the nation… was an appealing way to talk to the Gulf states about [the collection].”
The pitches multiplied from there. In France, Christie’s emphasized the Rockefellers’ major contributions to restoring Versailles and Fontainebleau. In Israel, they framed the sale around the family’s sponsorship of archaeological digs throughout the Middle East—many of the discoveries from which now reside in Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Museum, founded in 1930.
To hear Johnson tell it, the possibilities were nearly endless. “The only country where I didn’t find something that was Rockefeller related—and I’ve been to 50 or 60 countries—was Bhutan in the Himalayas, and of course that had been closed off to everybody for 100 years, so nobody ever got there!” he says. “Every place else, there was some little thing that was Rockefeller-related that was very obvious. It’s just really, really amazing.”
Nor were the storylines strictly national. Christie’s also highlighted other themes capable of striking a chord with certain collectors, such as the construction and history of Rockefeller Center—a likely lure for born-and-bred New Yorkers—and the pivotal role the women of the Rockefeller family, especially Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Dorothy Miller, played in creating MoMA—no doubt a timely narrative amid heightened awareness of women’s untold stories.
Johnson gives most of the credit for the final storytelling and marketing strategy to Christie’s. “They knew what they needed,” he explains. “I simply pointed them in the right direction, and if they went over the line too much one way or the other, I’d try to bring them back.”
Porter, however, directs the accolades back to the Rockefellers themselves. “They gave us the stories, if you were a careful reader,” he says. “You found these themes revealed themselves through these collections.”
Time was also a factor. The house normally has six to eight weeks to market specific auctions, but Christie’s enjoyed a full year with the Rockefellers’ history—an extraordinary luxury that no doubt affected the campaign’s breadth and depth. Yet Porter emphasized that the myth-making process itself would have been fundamentally the same no matter the deadline. “What is at the core of how we approach every piece of business,” he explains, “is that there is an underlying story to tell about collectors and their works of art”—a story that “brings life to” and “excites” their peers on the buy side.
And with two of the three live Rockefeller auctions still to come as of this writing, the first $646 million in sales only qualifies as these intertwined narratives’ first act. True, the work, its provenance, and other external factors always matter. But in the art market, we should never underestimate the power of a good story—or several.
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