A rare Anhua-decorated blue and white ‘dragon’ bowl, Xuande six-character mark in underglaze blue within a double circle and of the period (1426-1435). 8¼ in (21 cm) diameter. Sold

‘My highlight of 2018’ — A rare Anhua-decorated blue and white ‘dragon’ bowl

Christie’s Deputy Chairman Jonathan Rendell on a 600-year-old Chinese porcelain bowl, which was discovered in the kitchen cupboard of David Rockefeller’s home in Seal Harbour

When Jonathan Rendell took on the challenge of helping to oversee the auction of The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, he knew it was going to be a phenomenal undertaking. ‘It was one of the most valuable collections we had ever seen,’ recalls Christie’s Deputy Chairman. ‘I knew right from the start that it was about telling the story of the family through the objects.’

Peggy and David Rockefeller spent much of their lives collecting exceptional blue-chip works of art. Their expansive artistic vision ranged from ancient Syrian artefacts to 20th-century paintings by the likes of Picasso, O’Keeffe and de Kooning. ‘They lived with great art in a very simple way,’ stresses Rendell. ‘There were no “look at me” moments, it was much more understated than that. It just happened that there was a great Picasso on the wall.’

‘There was no record of the bowl. Everything else had been meticulously recorded, but this had not been listed’ — Jonathan Rendell

It was the wish of David Rockefeller, who died in March 2017, that his vast collection be auctioned to raise money for the many charities he and his wife had supported during their lifetimes. The breadth and depth of their collecting presented a challenge to the team from Christie’s.

‘The sheer volume of it was hard to get your head around,’ comments Rendell. ‘There were 67 dinner services just to begin with. The collection was vast, but after a while I got to know these things and it gave me a better understanding of the collectors. I began to see the collection as a biography in objects — all 1,600 of them.’

It was while cataloguing the art works for sale at one of the Rockefellers’ residencies, Ringing Point in Maine, that the team discovered a decorated blue and white bowl in a kitchen cupboard. ‘There was no record of it,’ says Rendell, ‘everything else was meticulously recorded, but this had not been listed.’ It turned out to be an incredibly rare Xuande bowl dating to between 1425 and 1435 AD, the most sophisticated period in the history of Chinese blue and white porcelain.

To launch the sale of The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, Christie’s organised a touring exhibition of pre-sale highlights that began in Hong Kong. The bowl, in particular, was greeted with huge excitement. ‘It was fascinating,’ says Rendell, ‘to see a new audience from China, who were interested in this great American success story because of the family’s philanthropic interests in China.’

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In 1917, for example, the Rockefeller Foundation financed the opening of Peking Union Medical College (PUMC) in Beijing, which remains one of the country’s top medical schools. Later, it also underwrote the restoration of the Ming Tombs, near Nanjing.

Rendell remembers the sale series as being ‘long, really long’, with the final auction in the series ending in the early hours of the morning on 11 May. The ‘dragon’ bowl, which was one of the last lots to go under the hammer, was sold for a record $2,772,500 — hugely more than its high estimate of $150,000.