Chinese Export ‘Tobacco Leaf service, circa 1775. Estimate $150,000-250,000. This lot is offered in the Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller in Spring 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Chinese Export porcelain from The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller

Highlights from the collection, with personal insights from the late David Rockefeller, and further contributions from Becky MacGuire, Senior Specialist in Chinese Export Art

‘Aunt Lucy and Mother were devoted to one another and shared many interests, including ceramics,’ wrote David Rockefeller in 1992. While he was a student at Harvard, David frequently drove to Providence to have Sunday lunch with his aunt, who was Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s older sister. ‘She loved to show me around the large house she had inherited from my grandfather, Senator Nelson W. Aldrich,’ he said, ‘so I could see the treasures she had accumulated on her many trips to distant lands.’

Among those many treasures were Chinese Export dinner and dessert services, and models, which, David recalled, ‘were kept in closets, nooks and crannies all over the house’. After her death in 1955, Lucy Truman Aldrich left David and his wife Peggy several pieces.

‘Peggy and I have always enjoyed Chinese Export porcelain’ — David Rockefeller

David’s father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was an avid collector of porcelain of the Ming and Kangxi dynasties, while Abby preferred the smaller, simpler pieces from earlier dynasties. A variety of ceramic pieces were used for decoration in the various family homes, and antique porcelain services were used on a regular basis for lunch and dinner. In Tarrytown or New York, for example, English, Continental or Chinese Export services were used on the table.

‘The truly wonderful thing about Peggy and David Rockefeller’s Chinese Export,’ says Christie's specialist Becky MacGuire, ‘is that it was appreciated not just for its quality or rarity but for how it could be used to enrich their surroundings, whether for entertaining or just in daily life. Some they bought together and others came to them from family members, adding yet another layer of meaning to their enjoyment.’

Peggy and David made their first purchase of an antique porcelain service in 1943, and subsequently enhanced their knowledge and collection through close relationships with London dealers such as Alfred Thomas (and, later, his son Peter) of J. Rochelle Thomas; Bernard Perret of Delomosne & Sons; and Hanns Weinberg of the Antique Porcelain Company.

Selected Chinese Export highlights from The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller are presented below, of which a number will be on view at our Rockefeller Center galleries during Americana Week.

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  • One of David Rockefeller’s first purchases after World War II

‘This is one of the first items I bought from Blairman & Sons on my first trip to London after World War II,’ revealed David Rockefeller. ‘Probably because I had always liked a pair of Chinese Export dogs which belonged to my mother, I was drawn to this pair of hares.’ The hares, which derive from European rather than Chinese models — Eastern copyists particularly followed Meissen originals — resided in a stairwell at the Rockefellers’ Hudson Pines home.

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  • A dinner service that kick-started Peggy and David’s collection

‘In 1951, when Peggy and I went together to London and stopped at J. Rochelle Thomas, we had almost no Export porcelain of our own,’ David Rockefeller revealed. ‘We were delighted to find this beautiful dinner service, which we bought without hesitation. Since then, we have purchased a few additional pieces of the same pattern, including butter plates.’ 

This hard-paste porcelain service, the design of which may have been inspired by a European textile pattern, remained one of the couple’s favourite services.

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  • Cherished mementoes of Aunt Lucy

‘We were very pleased to be able to draw this pair of Chinese Export cows in the distribution of Aunt Lucy’s belongings in 1955,’ wrote David Rockefeller in Volume IV of the catalogue of the collection. He described Lucy Truman Aldrich as an ‘intrepid’ traveller and someone who ‘bought art everywhere she went — often in remote spots at modest prices’. 

Aunt Lucy often bought pieces for Abby and ‘shipped them back in large crates’ to the Rockefellers’ home in New York. She accumulated a superb collection of antique porcelains over the course of her life, and, importantly, implanted a love ceramics in her nephew. Of these cows, David Rockefeller said, ‘I remember them very well in [Aunt Lucy’s] home in Providence and always felt they had a great deal of charm.’

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  • A service that was variously owned by three Rockefeller brothers

The voyages undertaken by Captain James Cook to the South Pacific in the 1770s aroused considerable interest among European botanists in Oriental flora. The so-called ‘tobacco leaf’ pattern, however, may owe as much in its derivation to textile designs supplied to the East India Company as it does to any interest in plant life. This service, which is painted in the design traditionally referred to as the chrysanthemum version of the ‘tobacco leaf’ pattern, and flowers, belonged to Lucy Truman Aldrich before being acquired by Nelson Rockefeller in the 1960s and ’70s. 

Shortly before his death in 1979, Nelson sold it to his younger brother Laurance. In 1990, Laurance was considering selling the entire service when David and Peggy made him an offer. ‘We bought virtually all of the chrysanthemum pattern, but did not take any pieces from either the pseudo-chrysanthemum or the wheel patterns,’ recalled David, ‘as we did not think either of them was necessary for a handsome place setting.’

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  • A shared love of strong, vibrant colour

‘The same love of strong, vibrant colour seen in Peggy and David Rockefeller’s incredible modern paintings is reflected in many of their ceramics,’ says Becky MacGuire. ‘This fantastic pair of sauce tureens in the shape of nautilus shells are not only exuberantly modelled but also enriched with intense enamel colour.’

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  • Animals — a favourite subject

‘There is a love of diversity as well as an insatiable curiosity about the entire range of porcelain production,’ wrote dealer Deborah Gage of the Rockefellers’ collection. Animals were a favourite subject of Peggy and David Rockefeller and were well represented by a broad range of factories. ‘Their Chinese Export animals are invariably high quality, but also with a decided charm,’ adds Becky MacGuire.

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  • A lifetime of enjoyment

According to Deborah Gage, who once worked with Hanns Weinberg, collecting porcelain ‘provided a lifetime of enjoyment’ for David and Peggy Rockefeller, which was evident in the ‘gracious and inviting manner’ in which these objects were displayed in their homes. ‘I love to think of this pair of sweetly smiling court ladies holding lit candles in Peggy and David Rockefeller’s beautiful dining room as they looked down on a table set with lovely period porcelain,’ says Becky MacGuire.