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Christie's Behind the Scenes

By Karen HudesMay 4 2018

This week we had the opportunity to visit the Christie's warehouse in Long Island City, Queens, where many of the objects up for auction are researched and prepared before the bidding starts. And right now Christie's pros are getting set for what may be the sale of the century—The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller.

While the couple's spectacular fine art collection is already on display at Christie's at Rockefeller Center, where the live auctions will take place May 8–10, most of the exquisite porcelain, furniture, prints and other decor that make up the online auction, which began May 1, are kept in storage here.

Carleigh Queenth, specialist head of European ceramics and glass at Christie's, spoke with us about the pieces that the Rockefellers kept in their homes in Manhattan, Hudson Pines and Maine, all of which carry a piece of history—and are more accessible than you might think. "The online sales really have things at a variety of price points, starting at even $100, and everything is being sold for charity," she says. "You never know what the X factor will be... but we price things as if they did not belong to a Rockefeller."

Behind her in the video above are examples of Japanese dinnerware from an extensive collection that was kept in the Rockefellers' home in Seal Harbor, Maine, and was largely inherited from David's mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. Art lovers who were interested in both Asian and European traditions, David and Peggy frequently traveled and entertained (67 different dinner services are in the sale), so their passions can be seen in the way they set the table and furnished their homes.

Among the objects evoking bygone eras are an early 19th-century porcelain ice cream cooler (with compartments for both ice cream and ice), silver-plated Victorian candlesticks with snuffers and a silver-plated toast rack. Meanwhile, two French blue opaline glass boxes with keyholes might pique your curiosity. A pair of leopards headline a collection of ceramic figurines (bolstered by Peggy, who was a farmer, gardener and lover of animals), while more contemporary art prints of beetles reflect David's expertise in the insects—his collection of 150,000 beetles was recently donated to Harvard, and several species are named for him.

Furnishings range from a George II mahogany reading stand to an American maple slant-front desk, along with stately bureaus, beds and fretwork bookcases, and Queenth showed us a green velvet 19th-century sedan chair from Northern Europe, constructed with brackets on either side of the base for wooden bars to pass through. Though the Rockefellers didn't stand on ceremony, the piece was originally designed for a wealthy person to be carried from place to place by four men, with a swinging chair to keep the seated individual from being "jostled."

There are personal effects in the sale as well, including brooches, cufflinks and a monogrammed Cartier gold powder compact. On display at the Christie's galleries is the Rockefeller money clip—a miniature model of Rockefeller Center in gold

While the Rockefellers were avid collectors, they were even more devoted to philanthropy, supporting the arts, the environment, education and humanitarian efforts through organizations that they founded, steered or donated to throughout their lives. The 12 charitable beneficiaries of the proceeds from the auctions are: the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, the Council on Foreign Relations, the David Rockefeller Fund, Harvard University, MoMA, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Rockefeller University, the American Farmland Trust, the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture and the Mount Desert Land and Garden Preserve.

Take a look at the online sale, running through May 11, and you might find a keepsake that tells a story while also contributing to a good cause. And if you're in NYC, visit Christie's at 20 Rockefeller Plaza (49th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues) to see the Rockefellers' paintings and sculptures, as well as some furnishings, before the auctions begin on May 8. Viewings are free and open to the public.

Video and article: Karen Hudes

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