Abby and George O’Neill

The Collection of Abby and George O’Neill

Over the course of almost seven decades of marriage, Abby and George O’Neill continued the Rockefeller family tradition of combining fine art collecting with philanthropic endeavours

‘The homes of Abby and George were fun, generous, full of adventure and memory-making,’ said Abby O’Neill’s goddaughter Nancy S. Taylor in the eulogy of thanksgiving for the life of George O’Neill in 2019. ‘They were an extraordinary team.’

Over the course of nearly seven decades of marriage, the O’Neills filled their homes with fine and decorative arts from all over the world. ‘Their collection reflects a distinguished history of American collecting,’ says Christie’s international specialist William Strafford. ‘It was built around beautiful objects handed down through generations, and it has its own unique personality.’ 

It also has remarkable breadth, encompassing European furniture, Impressionist painting and Chinese ceramics, among other collecting categories.

The couple’s passion for the arts was a family affair, it transpires. ‘Collecting art represented an enviable tradition begun by Abby’s grandparents John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and later continued by her aunt and uncle, Peggy and David Rockefeller,’ explains Strafford.

In 2018 Christie’s sold The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller for $835.1 million, the highest total ever achieved at auction for a single collection of fine and decorative art. The proceeds went to a dozen philanthropic organisations that Peggy and David Rockefeller had supported during their lifetimes.

‘Abby had the business acumen and philanthropic passion of her great grandfather, John D. Rockefeller’ — Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund

The Rockefeller tradition of collecting has arguably been unsurpassed, says Strafford. ‘It has come to define the tradition of artistic collecting in the United States and left the country with one of the most important cultural legacies in its history.’

Selected works from the collection of Abby and George O’Neill will be offered at Christie’s in the coming months, in auctions including the Post-War and Contemporary Art Morning Sale on 7 October, The Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale on 8 October, The Exceptional Sale on 14 October, American Art on 28 October and The Collector Sale, which runs online from 23 September to 8 October.

The O’Neills and philanthropy

As well as being a committed supporter of the arts, Abby continued the Rockefeller family’s tradition of combining business and philanthropy.

‘Abby connected so naturally with people, providing a role model for genuine relationships as well as philanthropic excellence,’ recalls Valerie Rockefeller, the second cousin of Mrs. O’Neill. ‘Being a woman leader when that was more of a challenge — and a mother of six, which is ever daunting — never slowed her down.’

Over the course of her lifetime, Mrs. O’Neill was a devoted trustee of numerous financial, educational, arts and community service organisations across the United States, including International House New York, Teachers College, Columbia University and the Community Foundation of Oyster Bay.

Abby and George O’Neill carried forward the Rockefeller legacy ‘that has come to define the tradition of artistic collecting in the United States’

Abby and George O’Neill carried forward the Rockefeller legacy ‘that has come to define the tradition of artistic collecting in the United States’

Between 1998 and 2004 she served as chairman of Rockefeller Financial Services and Rockefeller & Company. In addition, she was chairman of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, one of the family’s most important philanthropic bodies.

‘Abby had the business acumen and philanthropic passion of her great grandfather, John D. Rockefeller, and brought both to the work of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, to great effect,’ says Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

George shared his wife’s business acumen and philanthropic interests. After attending Harvard College in 1950, he began working at the Chase Manhattan Bank, and later spent 13 years at Train, Cabot & Associates. In 1977 he founded Meriwether Capital, a private investment firm in New York, of which he would later become chairman.

George also served as board chairman at a number of additional companies, including the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey where he was commissioner from 1991-1999. He was a trustee of New York’s public television station, WNET, as well as of Colonial Williamsburg, Vassar College, Webster College, East Woods School and the Center for Educational Innovation.

‘They were parents of six. Grandparents. Friends. Contributing members of society. In love and each other’s best friend,’ recalled Abby’s goddaughter. ‘Together, equally, they accomplished more than most of the rest of us put together.’

Highlights of the collection

Leading the collection is a pair of exceptional George III gilt-bronze mahogany commodes dating from the early 1760s, made for Ashburnham Place, one of the grandest country houses in England, and attributed to the celebrated English cabinet-makers William Vile and John Cobb.

After Thomas Chippendale, Vile and Cobb were arguably the most accomplished cabinet-makers of the mid-Georgian period, a golden age of carved mahogany furniture. They were appointed cabinet-makers to King George III in 1761 and are known to have supplied a series of superb pieces to several royal residences, including Kensington Palace, St. James’s Palace and the Queen’s House, now Buckingham Palace.

A pair of George III gilt-bronze mounted mahogany, ebonised and ebony commodes, attributed to William Vile and John Cobb, circa 1760. 42¾ in (16.8 cm) high, 48 in (18.9 cm) wide, 22¾ in (57.8 cm) deep. Estimate $150,000-250,000. Offered in the Exceptional Sale on 14 October 2020 at Christie’s in New York

A pair of George III gilt-bronze mounted mahogany, ebonised and ebony commodes, attributed to William Vile and John Cobb, circa 1760. 42¾ in (16.8 cm) high, 48 in (18.9 cm) wide, 22¾ in (57.8 cm) deep. Estimate: $150,000-250,000. Offered in the Exceptional Sale on 14 October 2020 at Christie’s in New York

Offered on 14 October in the Exceptional Sale at Christie’s in New York, the commodes are characterised by their serpentine form and richly figured mahogany and ormolu embellishments, which emulate French Régence patterns of some 40 to 50 years earlier. 

According to Strafford, they were almost certainly supplied to John, 2nd Earl of Ashburnham (1724-1812) in around 1760, when he was remodelling his country residence. Lord Ashburnham held the important position at court of Master of the Great Wardrobe, so it was natural that he should turn to the royal cabinet-makers to commission these superb commodes.

‘These superb commodes are an exciting rediscovery,’ says Strafford. ‘Grand and richly ornamented pairs of English commodes with a fully documented 18th-century provenance come very rarely to auction, and these haven’t been seen on the market since 1955.’

Another standout work is Alfred Sisley’s Le Chemin montant (1875). At the beginning of 1875 Sisley and his family moved from Louveciennes to nearby Marly-le-Roi, a charming town less than 20 kilometres from Paris. Between 1875 and 1877, the landscape in and around the town proved a rich source of artistic inspiration for the artist. He painted almost every aspect of it, from the high spire of Marly’s 12th-century church and its encircling woods, to its picturesque houses and network of streets, paths and roads.

Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), Le chemin montant, 1875. Oil on canvas. 25½ x 19¾ in (64.8 x 50 cm). Estimate $600,000-800,000. Offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale on 8 October 2020 at Christie’s in New York

Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), Le chemin montant, 1875. Oil on canvas. 25½ x 19¾ in (64.8 x 50 cm). Estimate: $600,000-800,000. Offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale on 8 October 2020 at Christie’s in New York

Sisley created this rustic scene — which incorporates what the art critic Christopher Lloyd described as ‘an almost relentless array of horizontals, verticals and diagonals deployed as plunging perspectives and flat bands of planar divisions’ — shortly after moving to Marly in 1875, the year after he had exhibited at the inaugural Impressionist Exhibition in Paris.

According to Allegra Bettini, head of Works on Paper and Online sales at Christie’s, the mid-1870s are considered a prime period for Sisley, in terms of both innovation and quality. The fact that the present work is coming to market for the first time in over 30 years from this remarkable private collection only increases its appeal. ‘Le Chemin montant  is one of only five vertical paintings executed by Sisley in 1875,’ she says. ‘We expect to see great demand for this work from all over the world.’

Charles Demuth (1883-1935), Houses, 1918. Watercolour and pencil on paper. 10 x 14 in (25.4 x 35.6 cm). Estimate $100,000-150,000. Offered in American Art on 28 October 2020 at Christie’s in New York

Charles Demuth (1883-1935), Houses, 1918. Watercolour and pencil on paper. 10 x 14 in (25.4 x 35.6 cm). Estimate: $100,000-150,000. Offered in American Art on 28 October 2020 at Christie’s in New York

Also offered from the O’Neills’ collection is Charles Demuth’s Houses from 1916. In the late-1910s, Demuth painted a series of Cubist rooftops and trees, of which this is a lovely example. Inspired by the watercolours of Paul Cézanne, Demuth uses delicate planes of watercolour to explore colour, form, light and texture.

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The work was purchased by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller in 1930 as part of her notable collection of Demuth watercolours, many of which she donated to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She loaned Houses  to a 1932 exhibition at MoMA, where it was shown alongside works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Matisse and Gauguin.

Other notable works coming to auction include a silver pin and bracelet by Alexander Calder, a rare pair of Chinese Export partridge sauce tureens, and a moulded and gilt-copper and cast-zinc eagle. A George II elm armchair and a Meissen porcelain model of a pigeon are also offered.