Massive Rockefeller estate auction could fetch $1 billion

The estate of David and Peggy Rockefeller, which includes pieces by Picasso, Monet and Matisse, goes up for auction at Christie's in New York next week. It's expected to be the highest grossing single-owner auction in history, prompting some to call it "the sale of the century."

David and Peggy Rockefeller's four homes were filled with masterpieces. "We never bought a painting with a view towards forming a collection," David once wrote, "but simply because, in the end, we couldn't resist it."

The longtime chief of Chase Manhattan Bank, he was the grandson of America's first billionaire, John D. Rockefeller, who made his fortune in Standard Oil. David's father built Rockefeller Center, where in a 2002 interview for "CBS Sunday Morning" he gave CBS News' Anthony Mason a tour of the family offices. Even there he surrounded himself with the masters of modern art. 

For him, collecting wasn't a compulsion, it was a "pleasure" -- a pleasure he could indulge as a member of what many considered America's most powerful family.

The name and the fortune behind his name helped David and his wife, Peggy, accumulate one of the 20th century's great art collections.

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Matisse's "Odalisque With Magnolias"  

CBS News

"It's the most important collection of paintings and sculpture that's ever been sold," said Marc Porter, chairman of Christie's Americas, where the auction will be held over three days next week.

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Picasso's "Young Girl with a Flower Basket"  

CBS News

The sale includes a Monet estimated at $50 million. Matisse's "Odalisque With Magnolias," estimated at $70 million.

"This Matisse, painted in 1924, is the greatest Matisse to come to market in 50 years," Porter said.

And arguably the crown jewel of the collection, the 1905 painting "Young Girl with a Flower Basket," from Picasso's Rose Period.

"We are giving guidance of about $100 million," Porter said.

The Picasso, which hung in the family's New York library, had belonged to American writer Gertrude Stein. It's one of 47 works bought in 1968 by a syndicate that included David Rockefeller, his brother, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, and CBS founder William Paley. They chose lots out a felt hat to get first pick. As luck would have it, David got to choose first.

The auction, which will be held in Rockefeller Center, was arranged by David Rockefeller, Jr., after his father died last year, at 101.

"It limited the amount of ball play in the house," he joked of what it was like to grow up around all that art. "But it did train us to appreciate beautiful things."

The Rockefeller kids were also given an early lesson in philanthropy. All of the proceeds from this sale will go to charity.

By some estimates, it could bring a $1 billion to the beneficiaries, which include Harvard and Rockefeller Universities, the Museum of Modern Art and the Council on Foreign Relations. There are 1,600 lots in the sale including furniture, prized porcelain including the bowl Napoleon ate ice cream out of, one of the greatest collection of ceramics in the world, and the family jewelry. It also includes some of the collection of Rockefeller carriages.

Though it may be sad to watch the dispersal of his family's estate, David Jr. said the better it goes, the happier he'll be.

"That Matisse, if it goes into hands where I think I'll never see it again, that will be hard for me. Other than that, this is a game and I'm on the same side as Christie's on this one because we're both trying to create a huge success for the benefit of wonderful institutions."