Originally published in Issue 57 of The Rake, Nick Foulkes writes that, if the Old World’s aristocracy was raised on the feudal system, the New World coined its nobility through banking and industry. From the Rockefellers and Astors to the Vanderbilts and Carnegies, these ‘ungartered’ peers helped forge the myth of America with their astonishing fortunes and lavish spending.
Frank Jay Gould and his second wife, Edith Kelly, in 1913 (Photo by APIC/Getty Images)

“Christie’s has been selected as the global auction house for the collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller. This vast collection will be offered for sale in May 2018 at our flagship auction rooms in Rockefeller Center in the heart of New York City. The sales will be conducted in keeping with David Rockefeller’s pledge to direct the majority of his wealth to philanthropy, and provide for the cultural, educational, medical and environmental causes long supported by the couple.”

It is a bald statement, but there is nevertheless, in those words, a world of pride and satisfaction. And so there should be. It is a once in a generation, perhaps once in a lifetime event. Topping the list of these museum-quality works is what is described as a Matisse that will “reset the artist’s record”; a stack of Picassos that Rockefeller bought from the estate of Alice B. Toklas, who had been bequeathed them by Gertrude Stein; and works by Seurat, Gauguin, Manet, Signac, Gris, Corot, Van Gogh, Sargent, de Kooning, and Monet, each worth millions on their own merits before being enhanced by the Rockefeller provenance.

One simply runs out of superlatives when describing the riches of this collection, as one does when attempting to describe the wealth and influence of the Rockefeller family. After all, art was just a hobby, one of the many things they spent money on. During the 1920s the family name had replaced that of Croesus as the synonym for limitless riches.

Irving Berlin’s title number for the show Puttin’ On the Ritz features the family name as one of the axioms of money and the high life:

Come, let’s mix where Rockefellers walk with sticks
Or ‘umberellas’ in their mitts
Puttin’ on the ritz

And of course, the address at which the Rockefeller collection will be sold keeps it in the family. While others were wiped out by the stock market crash of 1929, John D. Rockefeller Jr. decided he would build in effect an eponymous Art Deco city within in a city, in Midtown Manhattan, that kept 40,000 busy during the nadir of the Great Depression.

David Rockefeller, John Jr.’s son, was born in 1915, a year after one of the defining moments in America labour relations. In 1914 miners working for the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company were striking for better pay, conditions and union recognition. Turned out of their company houses, they were living in a tented town near the village of Ludlow. On April 20, National Guardsmen stormed the camp, and after a day’s fierce fighting razed it to the ground. Among the dead were women and children who had suffocated to death in burning tents.

An event that shocked the nation, the ‘Ludlow Massacre’ became a cause around which workers rallied. And the man many blamed was John D. Rockefeller Jr., who owned a controlling interest in the company. As his youngest son, baby David, experienced the first days of what would be a long and extremely comfortable life, maybe his father thought of the infants who had died with their tiny lungs full of smoke the preceding spring. Certainly, their circumstances could not have been more different: David was born in the infirmary inside the family’s behemoth of a residence, two nine-storey houses linked together to give a good impression of a large hotel or medium-sized apartment block and, depending on whom you listen to, either the tallest or the largest private house in New York at the time.


January 2021


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