Art Market

Inside the Mind of David Rockefeller, Titan of Art Collecting

Doug Woodham
Apr 19, 2018 8:11PM

Portrait of David Rockefeller. © Rockefeller Archive Center. Courtesy of Christie's.

View of Pablo Picasso, Fillette à la corbeille fleurie, 1905, at the Rockefeller's library in their East 65th Street Manhattan townhouse.

David Rockefeller inherited many things: a storied name, unimaginable wealth, an inquisitive mind, and a profound compulsion to collect. Both of his parents had the collecting gene. His father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was the only son of John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil and one of the richest individuals in American history. John Jr. collected Old Masters, including Duccio di Buoninsegna, Piero della Francesca, and Francisco de Goya, while David’s mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, preferred the fresh and new. She flung herself into collecting contemporary art, which at the time meant artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Wassily Kandinsky. She was also a driving force in the creation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

David started collecting when he was a small boy. “I do not remember whether I started first with stamps or with beetles, but both collections must have been under way by the time I was ten years old,” he wrote in a special catalogue of his collection that he published in 1984. “Obviously, neither beetles nor stamps are directly cultural concerns, yet my interest in and curiosity about them set certain patterns that I suspect have influenced me throughout my years as a collector.” With his wife Peggy, David Rockefeller went on to collect masterworks across numerous categories, including 20th-century European painting, American Modernism, European porcelain, and English and American furniture.

A noted businessman, statesman, and philanthropist, David Rockefeller passed away in March 2017, at the age of 101. “No individual has contributed more to the commercial and civic life of New York City over a longer period of time than David Rockefeller,” said businessman and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg in a tribute. Shortly after his passing, the Rockefeller family announced that, following David’s wishes, his collections would be sold at auction with all sale proceeds going to nonprofit organizations, including his alma mater Harvard University, the MoMA, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Rockefeller University. Almost 1,600 lots will be offered for sale in May in a series of auctions at Christie’s. Expected to be the most valuable single-owner sale in auction history, the offerings include both a Picasso painting that may go for more than $100 million and costume jewelry with pre-sale estimates under $500.

David Rockefeller not only collected, but he also reflected on and wrote about his collecting, penning three essays about this lifelong passion. The first essay, written in 1984, was included in the first volume of what ultimately became a five-volume collection catalogue that Rockefeller privately published to share with friends and family. Ten years later, he wrote the foreword to a catalogue for a MoMA exhibition, “Masterpieces from The David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection: Manet to Picasso.” Lastly, he included a chapter on his experiences as a collector and MoMA trustee in his 2002 autobiography, Memoirs.

These reflections take us inside the mind of one of the great collectors of the 20th century. They help us understanding his thinking and what art meant to him and his family, and how it enriches us all.  

Starting to collect

David Rockefeller (center) with his mother, father, and siblings. © Rockefeller Archive Center. Courtesy of Christie's.


David Rockefeller shared his passion for collecting with his wife Peggy, whom he married in 1940. She predeceased him in 1996.

“The first painting of any consequence we bought was a portrait of a handsome young gentleman, attributed (falsely, as it turned out) to Thomas Sully. We paid $10,000 for it in 1946, which was a great deal of money for us at the time [approximately $137,000 today]. We liked it very much, and for many years it hung over the living room mantel in New York. At about the same time, because they were reasonably priced, we bought other minor eighteenth-century English portraits, two featuring men in bright red coats and one of a girl, vaguely – and inaccurately – ascribed to Thomas Gainsborough. They at least filled blank spaces on our walls, and we found them agreeable.” (From Memoirs by David Rockefeller, Random House Trade Paperbacks, reprint edition, 2003, p. 446)

“Collecting differs from mere acquisition in that it is an intensely personal experience, and Peggy and I and the other members of our family have been deeply involved in the process over the years. We have always been fascinated by the cultural history of works of art and by the circumstances under which they were created, and Peggy and I have learned widely from relatives, friends, art historians, dealers, and artists themselves, as well as from our travels and from what reading we have had time to do.” (From the preface to The David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection Volume 1: European Works of Art, privately published, 1984, p. 13)

Art and beauty

Henri Matisse, Odalisque couchée aux magnolias, 1923. Courtesy of Christie's.

Art critics and curators rarely use the word “beauty” anymore to describe a work of art, unless they want to be ironic. The notion of beauty, however, was at the core of what David and Peggy Rockefeller collected.

“The love of beauty has, of course, been the primary motivation behind our collecting. Beauty, to me, whether found in nature or in man-made objects, is ennobling and enriches the soul. It remains to me a kind of mystery, a concept somehow beyond the intellect.” (From the preface to The David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection Volume 1: European Works of Art, p. 13)

“A secondary but important motivation behind our collecting is the love of diversity. We are fascinated by the wonderful interactions that can occur among pieces from different times and cultures – especially when they meet with their surroundings to create a harmonious whole. Our enjoyment of our possessions and surroundings does not necessarily relate proportionately to some artificial rating assigned by a group of experts. Rather, our enjoyment is closely associated with our recollections of how, where, and from whom we acquired our various art objects, and well as with the relationship of these objects to one another.” (From the preface to The David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection Volume 1: European Works of Art, p. 14)

“We never bought a painting with a view towards ‘forming a collection’ or to ‘fill out a series,’ but simply because, in the end, we couldn’t resist it. Through this rather unscientific process, we have been fortunate to have surrounded ourselves with beautiful works of art that have given us unending and increasing pleasure as we have lived with them over time.” (From the foreword to Masterpieces from the David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection: Manet to Picasso, Museum of Modern Art, 1994, p. 7)

“Given other responsibilities and interests, I never have been able to devote a major portion of my time to the appreciation and collecting of art. Nevertheless, the time I have been able to find has had enormous meaning for me and contributed greatly to my own life and that of my family. Certainly Peggy and I both believe deeply that our collecting and enjoyment of man-made objects of beauty have given us a saner, more balanced, and more joyful approach to our activities in every area of life. Beauty gives one joy, and joy, in turn, generally adds new and productive facets to one’s overall perspective.” (From Masterpieces from the David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection: Manet to Picasso, Museum of Modern Art, p. 67)

“Above all she [Mother] taught me and my siblings to be open to all art – to allow its colors, texture, composition, and content to speak to us: to understand what the artist was trying to do and how the work might provide a challenging or reassuring glimpse of the world around us. It was often a deeply enthralling experience. I owe much to Mother, but her patient transmission of her love of art is a treasure beyond calculation.” (From Memoirs, p. 442)

Getting advice

Paul Signac, Antibes (la pinède), 1917. From the Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller. Courtesy of Christie's.

David Rockefeller and Margaret "Peggy" McGrath, 1973. Photo by Arthur Lavine. © Rockefeller Archive Center. Courtesy of Christie's.

In addition to having a keen eye, David Rockefeller was able to access the best advice possible before buying a work of art.

“Before making a decision to buy any painting of substantial value, we always sought professional advice concerning its authenticity and quality, but the final and determining consideration was invariably whether we both liked it. Among our many mentors, three individuals, all intimately associated with the Museum, stand out: Alfred H. Barr, Jr. [the director of the Museum of Modern Art]; Monroe Wheeler, for many years the Museum’s director of publications and exhibitions; and William S. Rubin, now Director Emeritus of the Department of Painting and Sculpture [at the Museum of Modern Art].” (From Masterpieces from the David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection: Manet to Picasso, p. 8)

“While there were many others over the years who helped us in the selection of paintings for our collection, Alfred had the greatest impact.” (From Memoirs, p. 445)

“Over a decade or more, Alfred brought to our attention works of high quality. Peggy and I were drawn to the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, and the first significant painting we bought under Alfred’s tutelage was a beautiful Pierre Bonnard flower painting. This was followed by a Matisse still life and, in 1951, Renoir’s stunning nude Gabrielle at the Mirror, for $50,000 [approximately $490,000 in current dollars]. It was our first important Impressionist painting and by far the most expensive. We hung it proudly in our living room in the City, although some of Peggy’s conservative relatives were scandalized at the sight of a nude woman so prominently displayed!” (From Memoirs, p. 446)

Art as an investment

Georgia O'Keefe, New Mexico—Near Taos, 1929. From the Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller. Courtesy of Christie's.

For Rockefeller, the pursuit of the best objects also led to substantial financial rewards.

“The paintings we acquired during the 1950s and 1960s established standards of quality and beauty that I have tried to maintain in my collecting ever since. Some of our earliest purchases would now command prices a hundred times more than what we paid for them, a reflection of their high quality and the boom in the art market that began in the 1980s and continues today. While we never bought paintings as an investment, our art collection has become one of my most valuable assets and represents a significant part of my personal wealth.” (From Memoirs, p. 455)

Legacy planning and the next generation

Willem de Kooning, Untitled XIX, 1982. From the Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller. Courtesy of Christie's.

Diego Rivera, The Rivals, 1931. From the Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller. Courtesy of Christie's.

While David Rockefeller’s parents were passionate collectors, as were many of his siblings, the collecting gene did not pass to the next generation.

“Private collections, such as the one Peggy and I have been able to assemble, are, I suspect, a phenomenon that will be less and less possible or perhaps even desirable in the future. In the first place, the supply of great paintings has diminished as many countries now prohibit the export of works which they view as part of their national heritage. Increasingly, masterworks now go to museums, with the result that they rarely enter the art market again. Along with this shortage goes an astronomical price increase for what is available. Secondly, high estate and inheritance taxes make it difficult for collectors to pass on works of art from one generation to another. Thirdly, most people simply do not have the space to house large collections. Nor do they wish to be burdened with the risk of theft or the high cost of insuring valuable items.” (From The David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection Volume 1: European Works of Art, p. 65–66)

“We have seen a significant generational change in collecting habits among our own children. While they enjoy acquiring works of art on a modest scale, their life-styles, which are quite different from Peggy’s and mine, do not readily allow for an accommodation with many valuable possessions. As a result, they have not continued to anything like the same degree of tradition of art collecting that my parents initiated and that Peggy and I have followed. Over the years, we have often given our children paintings, drawings, or prints for their own homes, but none of them seems eager to go about collecting as seriously as we have.” (From The David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection Volume 1: European Works of Art, p. 66)

Embracing what is new

David Rockefeller in Rockefeller Plaza, April 1982. © Rockefeller Archive Center. Courtesy of Christie’s.

After his first visit to MoMA PS1, an affiliate of the Museum of Modern Art devoted to leading-edge contemporary art, Rockefeller was dismayed by what he saw. But he then had an important realization:

“I was relieved when the tour ended and I returned to the comforting confines of my home and its Cézannes, Signacs, and Derains glowing peaceably before me. As I looked at them, however, I remembered that these men had once been members of a revolutionary artistic vanguard themselves, and quite often their revolutionary zeal was not limited to their palette. They had banished perspective, grappled with the disturbing currents coursing through their societies, and insisted that their vision and methods were as valid as those that had gone before. They had also been roundly denounced by the establishment of the day and their work ridiculed as pointless, grotesque, and without beauty. They had ‘invented’ modern art and changed the way in which the world was perceived. Perhaps, like the Neo-Impressionists and Fauves, this latest generation of ‘modern’ artists had more to offer than I was giving them credit for. I know that would have been my mother’s reaction.” (From Memoirs, p. 462)

Doug Woodham
Doug Woodham is Managing Partner of Art Fiduciary Advisors, former President of Christie’s for the Americas, and author of _Art Collecting Today: Market Insights for Everyone Passionate About Art_.