(Bloomberg) -- Get ready for the biggest tag sale in history.
More than 1,500 items from the estate of Peggy and David Rockefeller -- Impressionist and American paintings, English furniture and silver, 19th century carriages, Persian rugs, Japanese porcelain, Moroccan lamps, a Napoleon’s dinner service, duck decoys, gilded Buddhist deities, African figurines -- are coming up for auction, starting May 8 at Christie’s in New York. There is an online sale and six live auctions. Christie’s officially estimated the trove at more than $500 million, while privately whispering that it may be much higher.
Some parts of the collection, such as rare modern paintings by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin, are intensely coveted. Others, like the 18th century brown furniture, not so much. Then there’s the unknown premium for the Rockefeller name.
“You can’t calculate it,” said Jonathan Rendell, Christie’s deputy chairman. “The Rockefellers are almost American royalty.”
The clan traces its wealth to John D. Rockefeller, the Standard Oil co-founder and the nation’s first billionaire, who died in 1937. Once reviled as examples of ruthless capitalism, the Rockefellers converted much of their wealth to philanthropy. The estate’s proceeds from the auctions will go to charity.
“All of their houses were very warm environments in which love of art and beautiful things was front and center,” said David Rockefeller Jr., 76, one of the couple’s six children. “But their enjoyment of making people comfortable was there, too. You weren’t sitting in chairs that were awkward or stuck into your spine. You were sitting in comfortable chairs and you were looking at beautiful art and you were eating off of china that was pleasurable to enjoy.”
Judging from online bidding, which started May 1, some items will far surpass expectations. A 14-karat gold money clip in the shape of Rockefeller Center, estimated at $800 to $1,200, reached $26,000 after more than 50 bids.
A pair of 3-inch porcelain tigers (circa 1820) with a high estimate of $500 was already going for 10 times that amount on Sunday. Online bidding ends Friday.
On Tuesday, 44 prized works will be offered at the evening auction of 19th and 20th century art, estimated at more than $484 million.
Christie’s is betting that the family’s storied wealth and status will draw collectors from Asia. The Rockefeller highlights premiered in Hong Kong last year, a nod to the continent’s growing influence in the art market. Asian buying accounted for a third of Christie’s $6.6 billion global sales in 2017, up 39 percent from a year earlier.
Van Gogh, Picasso
About half of Asian clients bought non-Asian art, Christie’s said. One of the year’s most expensive works -- Vincent Van Gogh’s $82 million landscape “Laboureur dans un champ” -- went to an Asian collector. So did two $45 million Picasso paintings.
For the Rockefeller collection, Christie’s targeted buyers in China and Japan with special marketing campaigns, according to Marc Porter, Christie’s chairman of the Americas. Last month, it brought a Monet and a Matisse to Shanghai and Beijing to be viewed by mainland Chinese collectors.
It’s already paying off. At least a dozen of Christie’s Chinese “orca” clients -- or whales -- are heading to New York for the auctions this week, according to Rebecca Wei, president of Christie’s Asia. Usually they’re only on the phones, but this week she expects to see them in the main bidding room.
“They are fascinated by the Rockefeller name,” she said.
Three main factors underpin this interest: They want to know how the Rockefellers lived; how they preserved their wealth through generations; and how they built a magnificent art collection, she said.
“The big whale clients want the top-top pieces only by Tier 1 artists,” said Wei, listing Picasso, Matisse, Claude Monet, van Gogh, Gauguin and Paul Cezanne. “They like bright colors. Women need to be beautiful in the paintings."
Top on their list, she said, is a sensual 1923 Matisse canvas, “Odalisque couchee aux magnolias." Estimated at $70 million, it will probably set an auction record for the French artist, whose current high is $48.8 million.
Picasso’s 1905 “Young Girl with a Flower Basket," which depicts a pale, nude teenage girl with a basket of red blossoms, may be a tougher sell, Wei said.
“I had so many top collectors looking at the piece, saying ‘Mmm… I don’t know, she has a haunted look -- I like the Matisse much better.’”
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