This month, Christie’s auction house is selling art and objects from the David and Peggy Rockefeller estate valued at several hundred million dollars, for charity. The couple’s Picasso, Matisse, and Monet have gotten all the fuss, but David Rockefeller’s mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, also collected Napoleon’s spectacular Sevres porcelain dessert service. She passed the Imperial china down to her son, and it now goes on the block May 9 with suggested starting bids circling $200,000.
A certain set of the decorative arts market is dizzy over this. But which owners are mattering more to buyers: Napoleon or the Rockefellers? “It’s a provenance trifecta,” says Helaine Fendelman, longtime board member of the Appraisers Association of America and author of several books on valuing antiques. “Not only David and Peggy and Napoleon, but also the illustrious Abby Aldrich. Rarity? Exclusivity? Beauty? This is the height of porcelain collecting.”
And with, excuse the expression, the dish on the dishes going back centuries, they could fairly be called “historic.”It turns out the ill-fated emperor was something of a china fetishist, annoyed and inspired by the fact that Louis XVI had had a 445-piece Sevres service crafted for himself over a decade. The Sevres factory was actually a national manufactory, explains Jody Wilkie, cochairman worldwide of the Christie’s decorative arts department, so Napoleon, like other monarchs, began to use it upon his ascent to power as “his personal gift closet.” For himself, he commissioned a 256-piece dessert set with a brilliantly colored pattern called “Marly Rouge,” edged in iron red and adorned with delicate, detailed paintings of butterflies and, somewhat strangely, insects such as moths, ants, and bees.
Sevres records are meticulous and show its delivery October 7–18, 1809, to the palace of Fontainebleau. Historians know that the service was personally important to Napoleon because he had bothered, when he had changed travel plans to head to that hunting chateau, to have the new service delivered there instead. Perhaps it had sentimental value: It was that fall and in that place that the emperor told his wife of 13 years, Josephine, that he was divorcing her to marry an Austrian princess.
The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller contains 22 of the Marly Rouge pieces, the biggest tranche to hit the market in over a century. That’s about a tenth of the original set, which included a dazzling 188 plates alone, plus items such as sugar bowls decorated with dolphins on the feet or eagle heads.
While it’s a very old-money collecting field today, when Aldrich started picking up the porcelain, Wilkie notes, “in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, it was extremely avant-garde.” That innovation, on top of the famous names and stories connected to it, will carry a premium, she says. The Marly Rouge set goes on the block at about 10:30 A.M. on May 9, and she’s warning potential buyers the auction will be “very, very slow” because so many international collectors and museums have expressed interest.
David Rockefeller shared that passion. Strangely, he too had a thing for insects, collecting from childhood several hundred thousand specimens. He was so prominent in the field that a rare beetle discovered in Mexico was named after him. So he prized the detailed and accurate painting of bugs on some of the pieces.
Did he actually use them? Yes, indeed—a fact confirmed by Martha Stewart, a Sevres collector herself and a longtime friend and neighbor in Maine of the Rockefellers. Reached by AD at the filming of her television show, Stewart, who notes that her taste in china is more conservative than Rockefellers’ and that she favors “19th-century Wedgewood drab-ware,” says the dessert service was a feature at his wonderful dinner parties. (And writing in her latest issue of Martha Stewart Living, she adds that “he admitted that if the conversation at a party ever stalled, he could always bring it back to life” by talking of the royal provenance of the dishes.)
Indeed, history changed over those dishes. Biographers maintain that for years Josephine had argued successfully that it was Napoleon’s failure they had no children, since she already had two from a previous marriage. But then the pregnancy of his mistress in the summer of 1809—accounts differ on which mistress—showed that to be false. In need of an heir and now sure there would be a chance, on November 30, 1809, Napoleon announced his decision to divorce at dinner.
Josephine reacted badly, but there is no record of his wife throwing dishes against the wall. Of course, there are all those missing plates.