With $115 million, the winning bidder for “Fillette à la Corbeille Fleurie” (Young Girl With Basket of Flowers) at Christie’s on Tuesday night took ownership of one of the most expensive Picassos ever sold. Included in the price: a whiff of association with its previous owners, a couple whose names were synonymous with wealth, taste and privilege.
The painting, along with dozens of other first-rate artworks and hundreds of pieces of furniture, ceramics, porcelain and knickknacks on sale this week, belonged to David and Peggy Rockefeller, potent symbols of New York society and formidable collectors and philanthropists.
That provenance prompted vigorous bidding at the auction house’s Rockefeller Center headquarters on Tuesday; many of the 44 pieces went for well over the high estimate and seven set new auction highs for their artists, including for Matisse and Monet.
“What do you think the greatest name in America is for wealth?” said the art adviser Neal Meltzer. “In the 21st century we have a new form of sovereign wealth and those individuals can relate to this family.”
Christie’s is hoping this aspirational drive fuels sales that exceed $1 billion by the end of the week, a figure that would be a first for an auction. The Rockefeller auction, whose proceeds will go to various charities, comes on the heels of a history-making sale last fall at Christie’s: Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” for $450.3 million.
The first real test of the power of Rockefeller was Tuesday night, an auction of 19th and 20th century art. The results were encouraging, totaling $646 million with fees — the pre-sale estimate was $490 million — and every lot sold.
“It’s really fabulous,” said the collector Donald B. Marron, who referred to the works’ provenance as the “Rockefeller premium.” “It’s nice to see things that are modern, rather than contemporary, bringing good prices.”
Jockeying for the rights to the auction started not long after Mr. Rockefeller, the last surviving grandson of the oil baron John D. Rockefeller, died last year at 101; Peggy Rockefeller died in 1996. Christie’s defeated its rival Sotheby’s by guaranteeing the Rockefellers’ estate a minimum total price of $650 million, according to a person familiar with the terms of the deal. That is a large gamble for an auction house since it has to cover any shortfall, though Christie’s was able to shift some of the risk to outside investors.
The Picasso was the highest priced lot, with a pre-sale estimate of $100 million; the painting from the artist’s Rose period held pride of place in Mr. Rockefeller’s library. It was among a trove of artwork acquired from Gertrude Stein’s estate in 1968 by a syndicate of prominent collectors that included Mr. Rockefeller’s brother Nelson and the CBS chairman, William S. Paley. David Rockefeller drew first pick and chose the Picasso.
But the 1905 canvas was by no means a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Depicting a naked teenage girl with a basket of flowers, “Fillette à la Corbeille Fleurie” is widely acclaimed but, given the cultural #MeToo moment, potentially discomfiting. Moreover, the painting is not immediately recognizable as a Picasso, given its figurative style.
Sure enough, the bidding never took off for that top lot on Tuesday, despite the best and exceedingly patient efforts of the auctioneer, Jussi Pylkkanen. The hammer came down at $102 million, just over the estimate, with the total reaching $115 million with fees. The winning bid came in by phone.
“I think they overhyped what they thought it might bring,” said the dealer Larry Gagosian as he left the sale. “It’s all about managing expectations.”
But Guillaume Cerutti, the chief executive of Christie’s, said he was unfazed. “We thought it would go in the $100 million range — it’s O.K.,” he said. “At that level, it’s difficult to predict.”
And Almine Ruiz-Picasso, who owns the Almine Rech Gallery and is married to Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, a grandson of the artist, said she was not surprised the painting did not go for more. “It’s a very historical work,” she said. “It’s for a certain type of collector that is maybe more limited.”
In 2015, Christie’s sold the most expensive Picasso to date, “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’)” for $179 million.
Another big prize of the evening, Matisse’s 1923 “Odalisque Couchée aux Magnolias,” a sensual nude on a green striped chaise, went for $80.8 million following an estimate of $70 million, with five phone bidders and two in the room driving the price to a new auction high for the artist.
Although the demand for Impressionists has paled in comparison to the craze over contemporary art, the Rockefeller’s holdings in this category nevertheless attracted several bidders.
Monet’s “Nymphéas en Fleur” (“Water Lilies in Bloom”), one of the artist’s celebrated water lilies, generated some of the night’s stiffest competition. Fielding bids from several different places in the room and on the phones, Mr. Pylkkanen joked: “It’s like a tennis game with five rackets.” At the $71 million mark, he added, “It’s never too late to jump in.” The hammer came down at $75 million, and the $84.7 million sale price with fees was an auction high for Monet.
Buyers’ identities were not disclosed but Christie’s said that some were institutions that will be announced at a later date.
“Live like a Rockefeller,” was Christie’s pitch for the week of sales, betting on the idea that people would seek to take home some relic of American royalty, however small. The pieces had hung on the walls and decorated the rooms of the couple’s various homes. In addition to the multimillion dollar paintings in Tuesday’s evening sale, half of the Rockefeller material — more than 1,500 lots — was put online, making it available to a broad swath of people at varying price points.
The items included a pair of silver salt and pepper shakers (estimated at $400 to $600); a covered porcelain tureen shaped like a carp ($8,000 to $12,000); a pair of aquamarine and gold cuff links in the shape of martini glasses that had already reached $6,000 online by Tuesday evening; and the dessert service that Napoleon took to his exile in Elba ($150,000 to $250,000). The sales at Christie’s continue on Wednesday and Thursday, with online bidding ending on Friday.
“This is the creation of the fantasy — how a Rockefeller could live,” said Marc Porter, the chairman of Christie’s Americas, in an interview before the sale. “For most of the world, it’s about the glamour of it.”
Christie’s was also banking on Asian interest in blue-chip American fare — premiering the sale’s highlights in Hong Kong; mounting special marketing campaigns in China and Japan; and bringing paintings to collectors in Shanghai and Beijing.
These efforts bore fruit on Tuesday night. The victorious bids for the Matisse and Monet were taken by Xin Li Cohen, the deputy chairman of Christie’s Asia, indicating they came from Asia.
For previews in New York, Christie’s transformed its main sales room into a faux garden and aviary, with piped-in bird song, to conjure up the Rockefellers’ home in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. and show off some of the porcelain pieces, many of which feature images of parrots, falcons and quails. Also on display was a sumptuous picnic spread, including the Rockefellers’ English wicker hamper with settings for 12, a gift from King Hassan II of Morocco ($5,000 to $10,000).
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