How the Rockefellers’ Art Dealer Forever Changed the Way the West Collects Asian Art

artnet News | Erica Eisen

Next month, New York’s Rockefeller Center will play host to an unprecedented sale of objects once owned by the scions of the building’s namesake family. More than 1,600 objects acquired by Peggy and David Rockefeller during their lifetimes will be up for auction at the Manhattan offices of Christie’s—and they could be worth as much as $1 billion. Dubbed “the most important philanthropic auction ever” by Christie’s, the sale offers an opportunity to reflect on the collecting habits of an American dynasty whose members rank among the nation’s most influential patrons of the arts. Of the many stories bound up in the collection of the Rockefellers, one of the most interesting for scholars and aficionados of non-Western art is the history of how America came to appreciate East Asian sculpture—which for so long had been relegated to the sphere of anthropologists—as works of art evincing technical and philosophical complexity.

At the heart of this shift in perception was Yamanaka Sadajirō, a Japanese art dealer who counted the Rockefellers among his clients and who was among the first to make the case that the Neolithic bronzes and Buddhist sculptures he showed were masterworks, deserving scholarly attention rather than gawking curiosity. By the time of his death in 1936, he had transformed his family’s quiet local shop into the world’s foremost Asian art dealership, a multinational company with offices in major metropoles like Chicago, London, Paris, and Beijing, but also quiet resort towns like Bar Harbor and Newport, hinting at the elite clientele Yamanaka cultivated. Over the long arc of his career, he would go on to play a key role in both supplying many of the West’s most important collections of Asian art and broadening the general public’s idea of what constituted art in the first place…read more

Image: Christie’s senior specialist in decorative arts and design, Becky MacGuire, looks at the the Rockefeller Service offered in The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller.