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A belief in beauty, nature and the power to change the world for the better

As we launch the first tour of highlights from The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, the late David Rockefeller and his eldest son, David Rockefeller, Jr., talk about the role that art, philanthropy and a love of Asian culture have played in the life of one of America’s greatest families

‘I was brought up surrounded by beautiful things from many parts of the world and many centuries,’ said David Rockefeller (1915-2017), who is remembered as one of the United States’ most deeply engaged and influential civic leaders. ‘I look upon my own collecting as having been an extension of that in many respects. My late wife Peggy and I really bought things together. We both felt, wisely, that if we should live with things we should both like them.’

In the spring of 2018, artworks and objects from The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller will be auctioned at Christie’s in New York. All of the Estate’s proceeds from the most significant philanthropic auction ever presented are destined to benefit selected charities.

David and Peggy Rockefeller were married for 56 years
David and Peggy Rockefeller were married for 56 years

‘My parents were partners in many ways,’ recalls David Rockefeller, Jr., the eldest of Peggy and David Rockefeller’s six children. ‘They loved to travel together, they loved to sail together, they loved to ride on horseback together. And they loved to collect art and fine things: porcelains, and beautiful objects. It was a form of serious recreation for them.’

‘We were very different in many ways. We led our own lives as well as having a life together’ — David Rockefeller on his marriage to Peggy

The Peggy and David Rockefeller Collection represents their extraordinary dialogue with art and the world — a staggering collecting achievement extending across geography, history and medium. In its breadth and depth, it is unrivalled in modern times, encompassing works held at the Rockefellers’ residences in Manhattan, Pocantico Hills, the Hudson Valley, Maine, and beyond.

‘What really ties together the Peggy and David Rockefeller collection,’ states David Jr., ‘is not only their love of beauty but their love of nature.’ When considering what his parents’ collecting taught him, he suggests it was ‘to use your eyes, to take in, to discriminate, to enjoy the world around you, both the natural world and the built world, including the world of art.’

David Rockefeller was the last surviving grandson of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (1839-1937), the great industrialist who consolidated the American petroleum industry and founded the Standard Oil Company in the 19th century, subsequently building a fortune that made him one of America’s first billionaires and his family one of the richest and most influential in the nation’s history.

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He married Peggy McGrath in 1940. ‘We really had a very wonderful marriage,’ he said of the 56 years they spent as man and wife. ‘We were very different in many ways and we led our own lives as well as having a life together. She loved gardening and was responsible for... publishing the Wild Flowers of the United States  in six volumes. She also loved farming and animals. She was quite a person.’

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller ‘loved beauty in every form and she felt that there were lots of things being done in the contemporary world that were not being adequately appreciated’

As was David’s mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, the wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and one of the women who founded the Museum of Modern Art in 1929. As such, David, who was born in 1915, was able to witness ‘the evolution of… a museum through the eyes of his mother.’ Both he and his brother, Nelson, subsequently became leaders of the museum, as did Blanchette Ferry Rockefeller, the wife of John D. Rockefeller III. ‘All three of them in their time led the Museum of Modern Art,’ says David Rockefeller, Jr. ‘But it was Abby Aldrich who led the way.’

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art
Abby Aldrich with her son, David

Abby Aldrich with her son, David

‘The passion was art,’ David Rockefeller said of his mother, who he described as ‘warm, caring and loving’. Her love of modern art developed, he said, ‘because she loved beauty in every form and she felt that there were things being done in the contemporary world that were not being adequately appreciated.’ Alfred Barr, the museum’s first director, stated that Abby Aldrich Rockefeller was ‘crucial to the institution’s success’.

The dedication of the Peking Union Medical College, attended by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller in 1917

The dedication of the Peking Union Medical College, attended by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller in 1917

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s rich legacy spanned philanthropy, collecting great works by Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masters, and passing down her deep love of Asia, its art and culture to her children. In 1917, she had travelled by boat to China with her husband, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., for the dedication of the Peking Union Medical College. David Rockefeller made his first visit to Asia in the early 1960s whereupon, his son explains, ‘He got to know Asia the place, Asia the cultures, Asia the many faces of art.’

‘I’m confident that it really shaped their view of the world,’ says David Jr. of his grandparents’ first trip. ‘I think it really shaped, not only [their] sense of the importance of Asia, but certainly their appreciation for Asian art.’

‘Father always said, and I think rightly, that for every opportunity goes with it an obligation. I would love to feel that when I go that I have been a part of that tradition’ — David Rockefeller

David Rockefeller’s philanthropy was a continuation of his father’s ‘art of giving’ and was rooted in a belief in the power of individuals and communities to create a better world. He was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Grand Cross of the French Legion of Honour, the Andrew Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy, and numerous other awards.

In 2010 David signed the Giving Pledge, further confirming his plans to direct the majority of his personal wealth towards philanthropy. ‘I feel very proud of the family’s traditions and what they were able to achieve in the world,’ he said before his death at the age of 101. ‘Father always said, and I think rightly, that for every opportunity goes with it an obligation. I would love to feel that when I go that I have been a part of that tradition, one that I feel has been a good and happy one for our country. I don’t think I could ask for more than that.’

‘Philanthropy was a major theme in my parents’ activity,’ confirms David Jr. ‘I think they saw there was so much need, so much opportunity, and they were lucky to have the means and the interest that gave voice to their philanthropy. They were able to travel a lot; they saw the condition of people all over the world. They saw the extraordinary art treasures on the positive side, and the poverty on the negative side.’

The series of auctions scheduled for the Spring of 2018 at Christie’s are, he says, ‘an extraordinary opportunity for the Peggy and David Rockefeller collection to be sold and the revenue… used to support the important institutions that they supported in their lifetimes.’