The Rockefellers and their collection of prized porcelain

Peggy and David Rockefeller collected and regularly used scores of antique porcelain dinner services. Ceramics specialist Carleigh Queenth and Rockefeller family historian Peter Johnson select their favourites from the 67 being offered in May

‘Mother had for many years been attracted by porcelain,’ David Rockefeller once recalled. ‘She acquired many beautiful services which were used frequently at table, especially when there were guests. She had a room on the seventh floor which was lined with glass cabinets in which selected pieces — both figures and tableware — could be displayed. Even as a boy, I enjoyed looking at the porcelain. Peggy later shared my interest, so we started to buy English and Continental china shortly after we were married.’

In this video, Peter Johnson, the Rockefeller family historian, explains how at the beginning of each week Peggy and David Rockefeller would sit down and plan which meals the couple would eat at home, and when they were expecting company. A fitting dinner service would then be selected from their collection to match each occasion. Ideally, it wouldn’t have been seen by the guests before, and it would reflect their interests. ‘No matter what the meal was — breakfast, lunch or dinner — you were eating off appropriate porcelain,’ says Johnson.

‘These are things they really lived with,’ agrees Carleigh Queenth, Christie’s Porcelain Specialist. ‘They weren’t only brought out for special occasions, they were used every day.’

Holding up a porcelain plate decorated with gold and brown patterns and scenes of Chinese figures in gardens and palaces, Queenth explains how David’s father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., started collecting this pattern in the 1920s. Shortly after he passed away, the first important book about Chinese export art was published, containing photographs of some of his pieces. Since then, it has been known as the Rockefeller Pattern. Despite there being some 50 dishes in the Rockefeller Service, each has been hand-painted with a different scene.

Turning to a set of 22 Sèvres porcelain dishes, plates, coffee cups and sugar bowls decorated with flowers and butterflies, Johnson and Queenth explain that they are part of the Marly Rouge  service, which was commissioned by Napoleon and delivered to his palace at Fontainebleau in 1809. Napoleon famously took the service, originally consisting of 256 pieces, with him when he went into exile on the island of Elba off the coast of Italy.

‘The way that Peggy and David Rockefeller lived with their porcelain collection should really be an inspiration to us all’

‘This is actually the biggest complement of [the Marly Rouge  service] that has ever come up for sale,’ confirms Queenth. ‘Fontainebleau has seven pieces and they only recently reacquired those.’ This set was originally purchased more than 75 years ago by David’s mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. Her husband had helped fund the restoration of Fontainebleau in the 1920s, and was also a keen collector of dinner services. Indeed, ‘Junior’ once said, ‘I have never squandered money on horses, yachts, automobiles and other foolish extravagances. A fondness for these porcelains is my only hobby.’

When Peggy and David entertained, every detail was important. Johnson and Queenth go on to admire a set of Hanoverian-pattern knives, forks and spoons, which the couple received as a wedding gift in 1940 — each engraved with their initials M.D.R. (Peggy’s given name was Margaret).

A plate from the Paris (Schoelcher) porcelain part dessert service

A plate from the Paris (Schoelcher) porcelain part dessert service

It’s the more unusual pieces in the collection, however, that the specialist finds herself gravitating towards. ‘Going through the Schoelcher blue dinner service I found these fantastic scenes of cupids torturing nuns and being shot out of cannons,’ she says. ‘I like to know that you can have the same sense of humour as somebody who lived 200 years ago.

‘I think that the way that Peggy and David Rockefeller lived with their porcelain should be an inspiration to us all,’ Queenth continues. ‘People should take their grandmother’s china out of the cabinet and use it every day and enjoy it. You have to give these things life.’