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Live like a Rockefeller — An 18th-century unicorn chest

John Hays, Deputy Chairman of Christie’s, explains what a rare Pennsylvanian chest purchased by David Rockefeller tells us about the nature of his collecting

This unicorn chest from Pennsylvania first became associated with the Rockefeller dynasty in 1933. The piece was purchased to decorate a late 18th-century building in Colonial Williamsburg, the historic museum-town in Virginia that was restored thanks to the generosity of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., David Rockefeller’s father.

Seven years previously, in the spring of 1926, ‘Junior’ had taken the young David on a 10,000-mile tour of the United States, which included visits to Revolutionary and Civil War sites. When they stopped in Williamsburg, an enterprising local reverend named Dr W.A.R. Godwin took the opportunity to show the family around the town, which had been Virginia's capital before the revolution.

The Governor’s Palace in Colonial Williamsburg, once the home of Thomas Jefferson, photographed circa 1935 — two years after the unicorn chest was acquired for the museum-town. Photo by Frank Nivison. Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.  Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center

The Governor’s Palace in Colonial Williamsburg, once the home of Thomas Jefferson, photographed circa 1935 — two years after the unicorn chest was acquired for the museum-town. Photo by Frank Nivison. Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.  Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center

Reverend Godwin stopped in front of each dilapidated building, explaining its historical importance. Impressed, Junior soon offered his support, initiating a 30-year patronage that saw him donating $60 million to restore the town. ‘That was the modest beginning of Father’s most significant project in historic restoration,’ David later wrote in Memoirs. ‘[It was] a project that gave him as much pleasure as anything he did in the field of philanthropy during his lifetime.’

Around 1790, when this chest was made, one third of Pennsylvania’s population was made up of German immigrants. ‘As artists arrived from Europe they used inherited repertoires to develop regional styles throughout America,’ explains John Hays, Deputy Chairman of Christie’s in New York. ‘This style of chest is particularly unique to southeastern Pennsylvania, around Berks County [about 200 miles from Colonial Williamsburg]. For collectors, being able to pinpoint exactly where an object came from is key.’

A Pennsylvania German unicorn-painted poplar chest-over-drawers, Bern township, Berks County, Pennsylvania, circa 1790. 29 in (73.7 cm) high, 52 in (135.6 cm) wide, 23 in (58.4 cm) deep. Estimate $40,000-80,000. This piece is offered in The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller in Spring 2018 at Christie’s in New York

A Pennsylvania German unicorn-painted poplar chest-over-drawers, Bern township, Berks County, Pennsylvania, circa 1790. 29 in (73.7 cm) high, 52 in (135.6 cm) wide, 23 in (58.4 cm) deep. Estimate: $40,000-80,000. This piece is offered in The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller in Spring 2018 at Christie’s in New York

This example beautifully blends a long Northern European iconographical tradition of Gothic arches and unicorns with ‘fraktur’, a calligraphic folk art developed in Pennsylvania. ‘The chest’s panels are like a window onto the late 18th century community of Berks County,’ the specialist enthuses. ‘The 1790s saw a boom, as people began making their fortunes in farming and trade — part of the genesis of America. But this chest shows how they retained their longstanding artistic traditions.’ 

Made in a regional workshop by a skilled master working alongside a team of immigrant pupils, it could have been commissioned by only the wealthiest members of the community. It is one of only around 15 unicorn chests known to have survived. 

In 1947 David revisited Williamsburg, where he learned that the chest was to be deaccessioned. David and his wife Peggy decided to purchase it and subsequently displayed it at Hudson Pines, their home in the Pocantico Hills outside New York.

‘Deep down, David was a pure, unbridled collector, and his love of folk art epitomises how grounded he was’ 

‘For a number of years we had it under the stairs... in a spot where it was difficulty to see properly,’ David wrote of the chest. ‘After completion of [our home] Four Winds in Livingstone, we moved it there and placed it in a more conspicuous and appropriate spot outside the library in the guesthouse. Given its beauty,’ he continued, ‘we are happy to have it in its new location, where it can be seen more readily.’

What does the purchase tell us about David Rockefeller's collecting? ‘Firstly, he recognised this piece of furniture as a significant survival of Pennsylvanian German folk art,’ says Hays. ‘But also the Rockefellers themselves have German roots, and David was interested in not only the provenance of his country, but of himself. 

‘His collection, which began with beetles when he was just a boy, was about identity. The social element to that was he always wanted to give back, funding charities, scholarships and historical research. This chest exemplifies all that he stood for and cared about.

‘To David, a piece of folk art was just as impressive as a Picasso,’ the specialist continues. ‘Deep down, he was a pure, unbridled collector, and his love of folk art epitomises how grounded he was. In his final years he surrounded himself in his summer pavilion not with Impressionist masterpieces, but with things like this.’

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