A day sale of David Rockefeller estate furniture, ceramics, and decorations started slowly on Wednesday morning, with auction house specialists nearly outnumbering bidders in the room. But the 18th lot of the sale— a Sevres dessert service commissioned by Napoleon known as the “Marly Rouge” service—jolted the sale into life.
The set, estimated to sell between $150,000 and $250,000, comprises an ice pail adorned with gilded handles in the shape of elephant heads, plates covered in butterflies, a pair of ornate sauce tureens crowned with a golden statue of an egg hatching, compotes supported by golden dolphins, and several other pieces . It attracted fierce bidding from the start.
It was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1809 and was taken by the emperor when he left France for exile on the Italian island of Elba. It was later acquired by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, the wife of John D. Rockefeller Jr. It subsequently passed to her son Laurance after her death; when he died in 2004, his brother David bought the set from his estate.
Auctioneer Gemma Sudlow started out at $150,000, and a chorus of specialists—at least four via telephone—began attempting to outbid one another. They were briefly joined by two people in the room, but by the time the lot reached the $1 million mark, the contest was between two phone bidders who inched the bidding up in $50,000 increments. It ultimately hammered at $1.5 million. Counting the auction house premium, the total price of the service comes to $1.8 million.
“As far as we can calculate it, it’s a record for any service, either Chinese or European,” says Jody Wilkie, co-chairman of decorative arts at Christie’s. “No. 1, it’s an object that is really beautiful and in amazing condition,” she continues. “The Napoleonic provenance and the romance of the whole thing will also have been a factor. And then, added to that, you have the Peggy and David Rockefeller provenance.”
Wednesday marks the first day sale in the blockbuster series of auctions from David Rockefeller’s estate. Last night, 44 artworks from his collection sold for a total of $646 million. All told, the next two days of sales could surpass $1 billion, making it the most expensive estate sale in history.
In an online sale which ended Wednesday morning, the Rockefeller name proved, time and again, to be worth more than its weight in gold. A money clip that depicted Rockefeller Center was estimated to sell for $800-$1,200. In the end, the 14 carat gold piece sold for $60,000.
All proceeds from the sale will go to charity.