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Live like a Rockefeller — A Chinese export dinner service in the ‘Rockefeller’ pattern

Senior Specialist in Decorative Arts and Design Becky MacGuire looks at porcelain that travelled from China to Scotland in the 19th century, before being reassembled over many decades as a large dinner service

The passion for collecting in the Rockefeller family, like the tradition of philanthropy, was multi-generational. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874-1960), the only son of the dynasty’s founder and father to David Rockefeller, had a great love of Chinese porcelain. In 1915 he famously acquired 65 pieces from banker J.P. Morgan’s important collection — his first major art purchase — and proudly displayed the tall Kangxi-period ‘beaker’ vases throughout the family’s very large townhouse at 10 West 54th Street in Manhattan.

‘Junior’ was also drawn to high-quality Chinese export porcelain, particularly the pattern then known as ‘palace ware’. ‘Part of the last great production of the China Trade, “palace ware” is a very richly decorated pattern, with extensive gilt borders enclosing intricately enamelled Chinese court scenes, each scene being completely unique,’ explains Becky MacGuire, Senior Specialist in Decorative Arts and Design at Christie’s.

Junior acquired pieces in the pattern in three large groups, beginning in the 1920s, from the esteemed dealers Alfred Rochelle Thomas of London, J.A. Lloyd Hyde of New York and Yamanaka of New York, assembling a fairly complete dinner and tea service. ‘The porcelain was used in the 54th Street house and then moved with the family to their large apartment at 740 Park Avenue, where it can be seen in a 1930s photograph of the “China Room”,’ explains MacGuire.

When, following the death of his father in 1937, Junior and Abby moved into Kykuit, the house that had been built in the Pocantico Hills by his father, the ‘Rockefeller’ porcelain was among the possessions they installed there.


The ‘China Room’, with pieces from the service displayed far left, in the 740 Park Avenue apartment owned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and his wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. Photograph by Samuel H. Gottscho, courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center

The ‘China Room’, with pieces from the service displayed far left, in the 740 Park Avenue apartment owned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and his wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. Photograph by Samuel H. Gottscho, courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center

After Junior died in 1960, Peggy and David were able to acquire a large part of this service from his estate. In 1964, dealer and collector J.A. Lloyd Hyde published one of the first scholarly books on Chinese export porcelain, which he illustrated with pieces of  ‘palace ware’ from Junior’s collection. The collecting community took note of the porcelain and its association with the famous American family, and the pattern — with lavish gilt and sepia borders enclosing unique Chinese figure scenes in coloured enamels — began to be called ‘Rockefeller’.

A basket stand — or undertray — from the Rockefeller service. Each of the scenes depicted on the service is unique

A basket stand — or undertray — from the Rockefeller service. Each of the scenes depicted on the service is unique

Peggy and David also inherited ‘Rockefeller’ porcelain from David’s beloved aunt, Lucy Truman Aldrich. Lucy shared a love of both European and Chinese export porcelain with her younger sister, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and would often pick up pieces for both of them on her extensive travels to Europe and Asia. (Among many other things, she also picked out dresses for her sister at Worth in Paris.)

Peggy and David acquired seven pieces of ‘Rockefeller’ porcelain from Lucy’s estate in 1955. They bought an additional eight pieces at Morton’s auction house in New Orleans in 1982 to add to their already extensive service, which they displayed in the large bookcase cabinet in the dining room of their 65th Street townhouse.

The liner for one of the fruit coolers from the Rockefeller service, which was assembled by two generations over the course of several decades

The liner for one of the fruit coolers from the Rockefeller service, which was assembled by two generations over the course of several decades

Today we know that this ‘Rockefeller’ porcelain probably comprised just three or four very large dinner services, made at slightly varying dates very early in the 19th century. Two are known to have descended in wealthy Scottish China trading families (one sold at Christie’s in London in 1977 and again at Christie’s New York in 2017; and the other sold at Sotheby’s New York in 1984). It is quite likely that the others were made for Scottish merchants, too.

After travelling from China to Scotland at the start of the 19th century, this porcelain gained a fascinating additional chapter in then being reassembled over two generations and many decades to form the Rockefellers’ magnificent dinner service. 

‘I like to think of it reflecting candlelight in the gorgeous dining room of the Rockefellers’ 65th Street house,’ concludes MacGuire, ‘surrounded by antique Chinese wallpaper, and being enjoyed by the friends and family the Rockefellers loved to entertain.’

This service and other highlights from The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller will be on view during Americana Sales (12-18 January) in the Lobby Gallery at Rockefeller Center, New York