Nobody now wants anything then – at least that’s the conventional wisdom when it comes to the antiques market. Then along comes Christie’s three-day sale of the collections of Peggy and David Rockefeller; it officially ends tomorrow, with an online-only assortment of lots. The expected proceeds – $646 million, but likely more once all the addition is done – will be donated to charities per the late philanthropists’ wishes.
In contrast to the couple’s spectacular Impressionist and early modern art and Asian treasures sold earlier in the week, the furniture that has gone under the gavel had been conventional, handsome, and traditional – the Rockefellers, like most members of their family excepting showgirl Bobo and vice president Nelson, were anything but flashy – with an emphasis on gentry-style English Georgian that is largely anonymous in terms of craftsmen or designers. (One auction-preview visitor was overheard saying, “I have better antiques at my house in Charleston.”) There were also masses of superb 18th-century English and European tableware – the Rockefellers loved to entertain and racked up some 63 services, some inherited from his dynamic mother, Abby, the power behind Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art – including a healthy portion of a Sèvres dinner service that Napoléon I took with him to his Elban exile in 1814. That butterfly-spattered set, in a pattern known as Marly Rouge, brought an applause-inducing hammer price of $1.5 million when it sold on Wednesday morning. It was estimated to bring, at most, $250,000. Methinks a French museum bought it, arguably Château de Fontainebleau, which owns a few pieces and a property, neatly enough, that David Rockefeller’s father helped restore.
Sèvres porcelain dessert service.
Image courtesy of Christie’s New York.
So, what does it mean when a set of 22 pieces of Bonaparte-beloved china goes for more than four times its high estimate at a time when antiques, generally speaking, have been market wallflowers, and antiques shops keep shuttering or migrating, when they can, online? Rarity, yes. Quality, indeed. Provenance – in that Sèvres service’s case, artisanal, imperial, and plutocratic – definitely. A-list origins always skew prices, which means that fair-market estimates shouldn’t be trusted when it comes to celebrity garage sales. Remember when Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s monogrammed Tiffany & Company tape measure, the very same model that goes for around $150 on the secondary market, sold for nearly $50,000 in 1996?
This is especially true when the subject turns to be the sort of solid, respectable, even noble English antiques that are often dismissed as “brown furniture” and which are given short shrift these days despite the rock-solid style that made them the cynosure of the Anglophile 1980s, when the National Gallery of Art’s 1985 exhibition “The Treasures Houses of Britain” dazzled the entire country. (That being said, any number of AD100 decorators – Miles Redd, Bunny Williams, Caleb Anderson, and Jamie Drake among them – enthusiastically deploy William and Mary chests of drawers, Georgian tables, and Aesthetic Movement armchairs to add depth and texture to suavely à la mode interiors.) Endless examples of provenance-driven hammer prices were seen across the Rockefeller furnishings sales. On Wednesday morning, as I was sitting across the Christie’s aisle from Cox Enterprises media heiress Katharine Rayner, the auctioneer Gemma Sudlow began taking bids for Lot 126: a circa-1815 Regency four-pedestal mahogany dining table that was estimated to bring $30,000–$50,000. A few sluggish minutes passed before suddenly the bids began to race, and the table was hammered down for close to half a million dollars. Yes, there was applause.
A Regency mahogany four pedestal dining table.