Rockefeller art auction breaks record & shines light on Chinese craft

Global Business

Rockefeller art auction breaks record & shines light on Chinese craft

In New York, the spring sale season is in full swing and at Christie’s auction house in Midtown Manhattan artifacts from one of the most famous American philanthropic families – with strong ties to China – are coming under the hammer.

It’s the collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller. They’re descendants of John D. Rockefeller who is known as the world’s first billionaire.

CGTN’s John Terrett reports. 


He was a quintessential “robber baron” of the 19th century who began with nothing, but who built an incredible global business and philanthropic empire.

From the outset, Rockefeller was involved in the oil business in China,where he also championed Chinese causes, one of his first philanthropic endowments was the Peking Medical College now more than 100 years old.

Becky MacGuire, Senior Vice President, Christie’s New York, told CGTN, “the Peking Medical College, still ongoing today and I understand it’s China’s premier medical school. They founded it and funded it. It opened in 1917 and actually he and his wife travelled to China in 1921 for a wonderful ceremony.”

Here are some of the Chinese related items on sale at Christie’s this week.


The Marly Rouge dessert service was actually made in France – at Sevres – but only after years of study by the French into Chinese porcelain making techniques.

Becky MacGuire says, “the Chinese had been the only people to make porcelain for a long, long time until 18th century Europeans finally learned from China how to make porcelain. This particular service was actually commissioned by Napoleon and it was delivered to him – we know from the Sevres record books – at Fontainebleau in the Fall of 1809”


The so called Tobacco Leaf dinner service – circa 1775 has exuberant enameling. Becky told CGTN, “the Rockefeller family used all of this porcelain. They didn’t believe in hiding things away in storerooms or bank vaults. They very consciously believed that their beauty should be appreciated and shared and they should be given life by being used in entertaining friends and family.”


One Chinese export dinner service carries the family name – Rockefeller Pattern – it’s full of colorful Chinese characters and characteristics. Becky said “Each piece has a completely unique Chinese scene …it’s beautifully and intricately enameled and it’s fantastic to think how the enamelers sitting in their little workshops in China used their imaginations.  It doesn’t seem to be scenes out of a particular drama or novel or folk story. It’s just a whole mixture of charming scenes of gardens and families and children playing and of sages and immortals they’re completely fascinating and every single one is different.”


And just in case you think this sale is all about dessert and dinner services – there is also a gilt-bronze figure of Amitayus commissioned by Emperor Kangxi (Cong-shee) the first of the Qing sovereigns to rule over China proper – and one of the longest reigns at 61 years. Becky enthused, “all of us can appreciate its beautiful sculptural qualities but, in addition to that, for a gilt-bronze sculpture it’s quite large. It would have been enormously expensive to make, so we know only the Emperor would have had the means to do this and the clout to order it.”

It is said the statue Amitayus signifies longevity and they appreciate that sentiment at Christie’s because that’s something the owner of the piece – David Rockefeller – whose name is on the marquee for this sale – certainly had. He died in 2016 – aged 101!

There’s much more on sale from Peggy and David’s collection at Christie’s that isn’t directly related to China – paintings, furniture accessories – all the things you tend to throw out when a long life comes to a close.

What John D the founder of the dynasty would make of all this is anyone’s guess?

I bet he’d be pleased to know that all of the money raised is going to 11 favorite Rockefeller charities.