A taste for Rockefeller
Love or loathe the contents, the sale of a personal collection was full of intrigue
What a terrible thing was the Rockefeller Picasso. the 61in by 26in Fillette à la corbeille fleurie (Fig 3) aroused strongly differing emotions in its viewers. David Rockefeller evidently loved it; his wife, Peggy, loathed it: she insisted that it be kept away from her sight. Most people I asked about it shared her distaste, but I found one who thought it beautiful. Initially, at least, its earliest owners, Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo, reacted like the Rockefellers, he for and she against.
Ugly was the word that came to my mind and not just from ‘Metooishness’, although that may have played a part because of the sad back story. the very young model was, indeed, a flowerseller, known as Linda la Bouquetière, but she also sold her body and, from her drugged and diseased look, is unlikely to have lived long. the body, especially the arm, seemed to me to be weakly painted, but the poor, bruised face with its dead eyes was masterly—and awful.
Despite the publicity and presale world tour, the price echoed the ambivalence of the market; $115 million (£85,770,450) is a large sum, but it was apparently at the bottom of the estimate. On the other hand, the $9,875,000 (£7,406,250) paid for Tigre jouant avec une tortue (Fig 2) by Eugène Delacroix (1798– 1863) was at the top of the estimate and I would have been far happier to have it on my wall. When his first tiger subject was exhibited in the 1831 Salon, together with his Liberté guidant le peuple, a critic noted that ‘this singular artist has never painted a man who resembled a man as closely as his tiger resembles a tiger’, which is only a little unfair.
Delacroix was fascinated by big cats throughout his career and the 17¾in by 24½in Rockefeller painting was a late example, being dated 1862. the subject is gentler than earlier lion and tiger pictures, suggesting curiosity rather than violence, although the possibility of feline violence is there, too. his friends recognised his affinity with the beasts; as théophile Gaultier put it: ‘he knew how to soften his ferocious mask with a smile full of urbanity. he was mellow, soft as velvet, seductive as one of those tigers whose extraordinary supple grace he excelled in painting.’
although Delacroix was a leader of the Romantic reaction against Napoleonic Classicism, whether through his recognised father or his protector and putative progenitor, talleyrand, he was personally a product of the Imperial period. a fine example of that Classical taste was seen in the design and decoration of the Rockefellers’ Sèvres ‘Marly Rouge’ porcelain partdessert service (Fig 1) made for Napoleon in 1809.
the 20 pieces, including plates, bowls, compotes and an ice pail, were painted with flowers and butterflies on iron-red and sky-blue grounds, with delicate gilding. there were elephanthead handles, dolphin supports and, on a pair of oval sauce tureens, finials modelled as eagle chicks breaking out of their
eggshells. The $250,000 estimate was left far behind in a price of $1,812,500 (£1,359,375).
A phenomenon of the Rockefeller sales was the huge sums people were happy to pay for things that would not normally have attracted much attention. There was an element of souvenir hunting here. More importantly, however, the $832,573,469 (£619 million) raised by the 1,500 objects —all of which sold—in 10 online and three physical auctions was to go to philanthropic causes nominated by the Rockefellers.
One notable instance was a modern 217-piece Mottahedeh porcelain tobacco-leaf part dinner service (Fig 6), originally made for sale at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and most recently sold with the Safra Collection in 2011, when it made $16,250. Now it soared away to $912,500 (£684,375).
What might a 15ft-long, fourpedestal Regency mahogany dining table have made in a good London sale? Here, it reached $468,500 (£351,375) against a $50,000 estimate. More remarkable yet was an English inlaid and painted satinwood and amaranth side table from the late 19th or early 20th century and ‘incorporating earlier elements’ (Fig 4), which was estimated to just $8,000 and took $300,000 (£225,000).
A similar mismatch between the $6,000 estimate and $243,750 (£182,812) price paid was for a pair of late-18th- or early-19thcentury East Anglian walnutand-ash armchairs (Fig 5) with attractive serpentine cresting rails, pierced wheel-form splats and curving arm supports.
It would be interesting to know what a top-ofthe-range wicker picnic hamper with settings for 12 people (Fig 7) would cost new at Asprey of Bond Street. By no means cheap, one would assume, but could it match the $212,500 (£159,375) paid here? One might guess a figure closer to the $10,000 estimate.
This one, retailed in about 1986, had an extra in that it had been a gift from Hassan II of Morocco, whose monogram appeared on many pieces. The various elements were naturally made by the best suppliers: Sanderson for the antler and stainless-steel flatware, Christofle for a silver-plated sugar caster, ruby glass tumblers by St Louis and a Limoges dinner service created by Bernardaud.
Next week Fairs to come
Fig 2: Tigre jouant avec une tortue by Eugène Delacroix, who had an affinity with big cats. $9,875,000
Fig 1: Sèvres service made for Napoleon in 1809. $1,812,500
Fig 3: Fillette à la corbeille fleurie by Picasso. $115 million
Fig 6 above: Mottahedeh tobacco-leaf part dinner service. $912,500. Fig 7 right: Twelve-piece wicker picnic hamper, a gift from Hassan II of Morocco. $212,500
Fig 5: Pair of East Anglian walnut-andash armchairs with serpentine cresting rails. $243,750
Fig 4: Inlaid satinwood and amaranth side table. $300,000