‘Not too many people can say that they’ve worked on the greatest sale of all time, so I realise I’m very privileged,’ says Jonathan Rendell, Deputy Chairman of Christie's Americas, with a smile. He’s talking, of course, about The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, which is to be offered in New York in May.
Rendell describes his own role as ‘storyteller — travelling the world, talking to press, talking to clients, all in the name of raising an awareness and appreciation of the collection.’
In recent weeks Rendell has made every stop of an extensive, global pre-sale tour, visiting Hong Kong, London, Paris and Berlin, where highlight works have been displayed at Christie’s galleries. Has any one piece from the collection attracted people’s attention more than the others?
‘The truth is,’ he replies, ‘people have reacted positively to everything, which is entirely to be expected when you consider that Peggy and David went to great lengths, and took great time to ensure they were always buying the best a given artist produced.
‘And in the case of an artist like Monet we have a number of different examples of his “best” — from 1877’s Impressionistic Extérieur de la gare Saint-Lazare, effet de soleil (above), a painting of the Paris train station St Lazare, to Nymphéas en fleur, one of his water lily canvases from 40 years later.’
Other legendary Christie’s sales Rendell has worked on include The Collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé in 2009, and The Collection of Elizabeth Taylor in 2011. The former, which achieved more than $400 million, holds the record for the most valuable collection ever offered at auction. It’s a record Rendell fully expects to be beaten in May: ‘Given the sheer number of masterpieces in The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, we’re talking north of $500 million, and that’s probably a conservative estimate.’ All estate proceeds from the sales, of course, will benefit selected charities that Peggy and David supported in their lifetime.
‘It’s a piece that takes you straight into the history of art. A gift from Picasso to Gertrude Stein, the woman who’d made his career. It doesn’t get much better than that’
Rendell says he has lost track of the number of hands he’s shaken at various viewings. What he’ll never forget, though, is the level of visitors’ engagement with the art. ‘There was extraordinary interest in Hong Kong, for instance. As a sign of the growing importance to Christie’s of an Asian client base, we actually announced the sale there. Yet the buzz in London was remarkable too, with 2,500 people walking through the door on one Saturday afternoon. Clearly the Rockefeller name is one that means a lot across the whole world.’
As the auctioneers ready themselves and New York gears up for the sales (8-10 May), Rendell’s work is almost done. He says he’s looking forward to a ‘nice rest’ with his new puppy after an experience that he describes as ‘extraordinary’. He won’t be drawn on which work from the collection he’d most like to have on his own walls, given the chance — but Picasso’s Pomme would be on his shortlist.
The backdrop to its creation was the fall-out between two of the most significant art collectors in history: the brother-and-sister duo, Gertrude and Leo Stein. Having left their native California for Paris at the turn of the 20th century, they supported the fledgling careers of many artists we now consider greats: Picasso and Matisse, most notably.
When sibling relations became strained, however, and Leo moved out of the shared apartment on Rue de Fleurus, there was dispute over who got to keep a still-life painting of five apples by Cézanne. In the end, Gertrude (very reluctantly) relented and, as a consolation, Picasso gave her Pomme as a Christmas present in 1914: a watercolour of an apple he’d painted specifically for her. It was accompanied by a note saying, ‘I paint you one apple, and it will be as fine as all of Cézanne’s’.
The inscription from Picasso to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas on the reverse of the painting © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2018
Gertrude died in 1947, and a couple of decades later the painting was bought from her heirs by David Rockefeller. ‘It’s a piece that takes you straight into the history of art,’ Rendell says. ‘A gift from Picasso to Gertrude Stein, the woman who’d made his career — it really doesn’t get much better than that.
‘It actually gives me goosebumps looking at that painting,’ he adds. ‘And I’m an old cynic who doesn’t make such claims lightly! Even aside from its qualities as an artwork — Picasso bringing a masterfully neoclassical touch to a still-life scene — it’s a fetish object for any art-lover because of all the great names connected to its creation.’