How did the Rockefellers shape the modern art market?

The Art Newspaper | Peter Johnson

The name Rockefeller is inextricably linked with an astute understanding of markets. In 1870, aged barely 30, John D. Rockefeller, Senior created Standard Oil, and by the early 20th century, he was worth at least a billion dollars. His descendants displayed similar market savvy in investing their considerable inheritance, notably in art. The Rockefellers entered the Modern art market in its earliest days, and the manner in which they collected reflects, perhaps influenced, its dramatic growth through the 20th century. Alongside Henry Clay Frick, J.P. Morgan and Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller, Junior was a client of the British art dealer Joseph Duveen. Duveen built a business out of selling the collections of European aristocrats to American millionaires and once said: “Europe has a great deal of art, and America has a great deal of money.”

Junior was traditional in his collecting tastes, and in 1915, through Duveen, spent $1.8m on a portion of J.P. Morgan’s vast collection of Ming and Kangxi porcelain. But his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, had a much greater impact on Modern museum collections and the art market as we know it. Despite modest financial resources and her husband’s loathing for contemporary art, Abby began collecting the work of living artists in the 1920s. More importantly, she joined with like-minded collectors to create a space where this art could be displayed, what would become the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). This group sought to stimulate a market demand for Modern art by legitimising what were, to many, disturbing forms of art. They fought to expand the accepted canon of art to include Monet, Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, Klee, Kirchner and their contemporaries—and eventually succeeded…read more

Image: David and Peggy Rockefeller in 1973 Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Centre