‘This piece is a celebration of the Rockefellers’ collecting legacy,’ says Asian Art specialist Tristan Bruck of a gilt-bronze figure of Amitayus, first owned by Laurance S. Rockefeller, and then purchased by David Rockefeller in 2004. Both brothers were greatly influenced in their collecting styles by their mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and elder brother John D. Rockefeller III.
‘John III was one of the earliest major collectors of Asian sculpture, and his collection — now housed at the Asia Society, which he founded — is among the best of Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian sculpture in the world. David must have been exposed to this type of material through the collections of his brothers, as well as that of his mother, Abby.’
The sculpture stood in Laurance’s office in the heart of Rockefeller Center among other Buddhist pieces, although ‘it was by far one of the biggest and the most important’, says Bruck. After David acquired it, the piece was prominently displayed in the library on the first floor of Hudson Pines, the home he shared with Peggy in the Pocantico Hills outside New York City.
The sculpture was part of a very large imperial commission made during the reign of the Kangxi emperor (1662 to 1722). It is one of many identical bronzes that are known to be in private collections and museums.
‘Because of the material cost to make a figure of this size, it would have been extremely expensive,’ says Bruck. ‘It weighs almost exactly 50lbs [about 22 kg] and is covered in this very thick gilding, which is rarely found on other gilt bronzes, as well as having semi-precious stones inlaid into the work.’
After initially adopting Buddhism as a political strategy to consolidate his rule over an ethnically diverse empire, the Kangxi emperor developed a personal commitment to the religion. ‘You see this in his writings and the gifts that he gave to his family members,’ Bruck explains. ‘He established this great tradition of Tibetan-style Buddhism in China which continued throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.’
Bruck believes that this sculpture was probably made as a lavish offering for one of the imperial family members. ‘It’s an ideal birthday gift because Amitayus is the deity of long life,’ he says. ‘It’s like saying, “Happy Birthday, may you live forever.”’
Perhaps the purchase also proved auspicious for its last owner. ‘This representation of the deity of longevity seems to have served David well, considering he lived to be more than 100 years old,’ says Bruck.