When the stellar art collection of the Parisian patron Gertrude Stein became available in 1967, David Rockefeller, the New York philanthropist and banker, created a consortium of friends to buy the paintings. In what has become known as the swankiest raffle in history, each of the six men put in a million dollars and then took it in turns to draw lots from a felt hat to find out who had first pick. Rockefeller—perhaps unsurprisingly—drew out number one and immediately chose Pablo Picasso’s Fillette à la corbeille fleurie, 1905.

Depicting an ill-at-ease naked pubescent girl wearing a pearl necklace, the masterpiece was created when Picasso was just 23 years old. Gertrude Stein had initially disliked the girl’s proportions and large “repulsive” feet, but over time the painting grew on her and it hung in her legendary home at 27 rue de Fleurus—a house that saw all the great and good of European and American culture pass through its door.  

Pablo Picasso’s painting is the standout work from the mind-blowing art collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller going under the hammer at Christie’s, New York later this year. The entire collection comprises over 1,600 lots and is expected to exceed well over half a billion dollars at auction, making it quite literally the sale of the century. Some sources believe that the Picasso painting alone will surpass the $100 million mark.

On the left Peggy and David Rockefeller’s Hudson Pines Residence, hanging on the wall is Henri Matisse, Odalisque couchée aux magnolias, 1923 and on the right Pablo Picasso, Fillette à la corbeille fleurie

Other top lots include Henri Matisse’s Odalisque with Magnolias, 1923, which is estimated to reach $50 million and is probably the most significant work of the artist to come up in a generation. There are also works by Georges Seurat, The Roadstead at Grandcamp, 1885 (estimate $30 million) and Paul Gauguin’s, La Vague, 1888. 

Such riches have caused a bit of a headache for the experts at Christie’s, with many of the artworks being so outstanding it is near impossible to put a price on them. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Conor Jordan, Christie’s deputy chairman of Impressionist and Modern Art, believes that “many collectors today have never had the opportunity to buy pictures of this quality and provenance.”

The collection itself has an extraordinary lineage and was first started by David’s mother, Abby Rockefeller. She was not only a keen collector but was the leading member of the “indomitable ladies” who established the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1929. Denied a large enough allowance from her husband—he disapproved of her interest in Modern Art—she turned her attention to corporations and New York businessmen to finance acquisition of paintings for the museum.

On the left Claude Monet, Nymphéas en fleur, 1917 and on the right Edouard Manet, Lilas et roses, 1882

Abby Rockefeller didn’t just pass on a passion of collecting to her son, but also the expertise of her great friend Alfred Barr—a curator of extraordinary skill and the man she installed as the first director of MoMA. It was Barr who persuaded Peggy and David Rockefeller to purchase Claude Monet’s, Nymphéas en Fleur, 1914-17, arguing (correctly) that the neglected painting of Monet’s beloved garden in Giverny was in fact a bridge from Impressionism to Abstraction.

It was also Alfred Barr who persuaded David Rockefeller in 1960 to purchase Mark Rothko’s painting White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), 1950. After Rockefeller sold it in 2007 for what was then a jaw-dropping $72.84 million, he remarked casually in a phone call to a friend: “Not bad for a painting for which I paid $10,000.” Like all prominent collectors, “appreciation in value has never been a dominant factor,” but he was piqued to notice that not only had their art acquisitions “appreciated more than the stock-market securities we have bought”, but “certainly given us more direct enjoyment.”

After his death in 2017, aged 102, and by then the world’s oldest billionaire (Peggy died in 1996), it is hard to imagine, even in today’s times, that that level of opulence and refinement will ever be seen again. Both of them were celebrated connoisseurs, collecting masterpieces in European and American painting, with a ferocious interest in Asian art, English and American furniture, porcelain, Native American, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese Art among many others. Throughout their collecting David and Peggy adhered to the abiding Rockefeller principal of frugality, and liked nothing better than picking something up for a bargain price.

On the left John F. Kennedy and David Rockefeller and on the Selections from a Sevres Porcelain Dessert Service made for Napoleon I

Despite being a philanthropist of the highest order, giving $100s of million to charity throughout his life, David Rockefeller will best be remembered for spreading the gospel of American capitalism. As the head of Chase Manhattan bank for over a decade, he was hugely influential around the world and it was said that he was received in foreign capitals with the honors normally accorded to a head of state.

Currently the artworks are on a world tour that started in Hong Kong is now in Christie’s London office, will then travel to Los Angeles before the final exhibition and sale in New York. Anyone given the chance should see the exhibition in the flesh. With all the works collected together, it is just about possible to imagine how it would have been to live surrounded by these masterpieces. Often it is the little details that bring the collection to life, such as the fact that Peggy never liked Pablo Picasso’s naked girl, and hung the painting opposite her husband’s desk in the library of their fashionable Manhattan mansion in the Upper East Side of New York.

On the left Willem de Kooning, Untitled XIX and on the right Paul Gauguin, La Vague

Bought by Peggy and David Rockefeller in 1947, the house was in fact two separate brownstones converted into one structure. The interior of the house was predominantly filled with English Regency and Victorian furniture, and their most significate artworks were to be found there. It was said that each day they had coffee together in a first-floor room surrounded by “Fauvist paintings as the sun slowly warmed and lit their back garden.”

One of the more intriguing elements to the collection is the original dessert service ordered by Napoleon for the Palace in Compiègne in 1807. Five years later the dessert service was brought with him to the island of Elba where he lived in exile. The dessert service was first acquired by Abby Rockefeller around 75 years ago. 

Accompanying the live auction will be a series of online sales, where a curated selection of accessibly priced objects will be available. With some priced as little as $200, the objects will range from jewels to porcelain to rare artefacts. According to the Christie’s press release for the sale of The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, all proceeds will be distributed among a number of charities, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the American Farmland Trust.

The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller can be viewed on the Christie’s website now.

Duncan Ballantyne-Way