Inside the Art Market: A Principality of Porcelain

I had been thinking of Letitia Roberts, whom I hadn’t seen in years, when all of a sudden there she was at The Met, checking her bag right next to me at the 81st Street entrance cloakroom on a miserable weekday in March. I was about to use my new membership at the museum by having lunch with a friend in the Balcony Lounge when I turned to see her.

Tish and I had been colleagues at Sotheby’s long ago, in the days of wine and roses during the 1990s, a time of innocence when the major auction houses seemed so refined and genteel and of peerless reputation. But then the collusion scandal broke around 2000, exposing dark behavior and wreaking havoc on both Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Suddenly the all-powerful Dede Brooks was wearing an ankle-bracelet under house arrest and giving damning testimony in a Federal courtroom against her mentor and boss at Sotheby’s, Alfred Taubman, thus sending him to prison in his old age. This was an especially jarring turnabout of fortune, as Sotheby’s had only recently celebrated its 250th anniversary, reveling in its lofty, silk-lined history. The whole sordid affair sent shock waves throughout the art market.

Apart from reminiscing about the good old days at Sotheby’s and the people with whom we had worked long ago, the main reason I had been thinking of Tish was to get her thoughts on the current state of the porcelain market, or what was left of it. For it seemed that no one cared about porcelain any longer. It was something to be hidden away in cupboards and closets. Young people seemed to loathe it as the ultimate in useless wedding presents.

As we strolled toward the elevators I asked Tish what had brought her to The Met this gloomy winter’s day.

“I’m doing research for an appraisal,” she said in that cheery staccato voice of hers, with its purring echoes of Katharine Hepburn and the Philadelphia Main Line. She went on without pause, “Generally I despair of appraisals, especially ones of porcelain, for everyone has it and yet its value has simply . . . vanished!” She seemed about to faint from exasperation.

Listening, I couldn’t help thinking how perfectly terrifying Tish would have been as the headmistress of a posh girl’s school like Brearley or Miss Porter’s. But after graduating from Smith she had spent a year at Harvard and then moved to New York, dabbling in banking before eventually going to work at the old Sotheby’s Parke-Bernet in their low-end, high-volume PB-84 department. In time she was talent-spotted by the erudite and suave Armin Allen for the porcelain department at Sotheby’s, where in time she became its head. In that elite position she was a force to be reckoned with, sweeping through the rat warren of cramped and cluttered hallways in the old 1334 York Avenue building with a kind of gale-force authority, more the headmistress of Sotheby’s than perhaps even Dede Brooks!

Her self-assured manner was well founded, for perhaps no museum curator anywhere knew more about porcelain in all its vast and sweeping variety than Tish Roberts.

Mind you, this was back in the days when the decorative arts departments at Sotheby’s and Christie’s comprised a small but profitable empire. For collectors in those halcyon days still bought silver, porcelain and period furniture at auction with confidence and vigor, thus keeping prices in these fields stable and robust. Small armies of specialists from Sotheby’s and Christie’s thus traveled the world sourcing decorative items of all sorts—Meissen tea cups, oriental carpets, French tables acajou, pre-Columbian gold figures, ecclesiastical silver, paperweights and countless other diverse decorative oddities—for the sale rooms in New York, London, Paris, Milan, Amsterdam and many smaller regional venues. As for porcelain in particular, it was a time when there seemed to be buyers for it aplenty.

Like most of the specialists at Sotheby’s Tish had come up through the ranks learning her craft the old-fashioned way: tagging, receipting, valuing, researching, cataloguing, marketing and selling countless works of Chinese and Continental porcelain good and bad over many years. She knew all the major collectors in her field, all the prominent museum curators and dealers, and they universally regarded her with respect and admiration, as still they do.

Apart from her self-assurance, what I most admired about Tish was her writing style, another aspect of her charm and old-school training. For as an auction house specialist she knew well the power of salesmanship in words well chosen. Her catalogue notes and essays were thus ones of clarity and telling insights, for here was the medium through which she conveyed her deep knowledge of porcelain to potential bidders and buyers.

These catalogue entries were a marvel of vivid and precise scholarship, with occasional poetic flourishes. Hence a Chinese export porcelain punch bowl or Staffordshire teapot described in Tish’s cataloguing prose seemed all at once exotic and mysterious. Then there were all those thrilling English family crests that she decoded from pieces of Chinese export porcelain, adding further color and mystery to her narrative while also enhancing value for serious porcelain collectors.

Thus left to her own devices in this creative reverie Tish would fill whole pages in her catalogues with dense paragraphs of porcelain history and pedigree, accompanied by footnotes and source references worthy of a doctoral dissertation. However, this wanton use of precious catalogue pages did not escape the notice of the business managers at Sotheby’s.

“Why do you need an entire two-page spread to describe this German figurine?” they might ask in astonishment and dread. “The estimate is only $2,500-3,500! Is this really necessary?

And they were so right! For by comparison, a painting by Degas presented in the pages of a catalogue for an invitation-only evening sale of Impressionist and Modern Paintings, carrying an estimate of $2,500,000-3,500,000 and expected to fetch well beyond that figure, might have gotten the same amount of space in the catalogue as Tish’s German figurine illustrated in black and white!

This irony was not lost on the business managers. But what could they do? Tish, after all, ran a small sovereign state, a principality of porcelain.

This was a time when the appearance on the market of a major porcelain collection was news worthy of mention in the pages of The New York Times. There was, for example, the sale in 1990 of a vast collection formed by Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Van Slyke of Baltimore. The couple had for decades haunted the auction salerooms and private dealers here and abroad in search of the finest Chinese and Continental porcelain. They had practically hoarded it, and now their heirs were left with the formidable task of dealing with this spectacular jumble of a collection.

Tish and her colleagues were thus summoned to the house in Baltimore by the local Sotheby’s representative, Aurelia Bolton, for a walkthrough. As the Times recalled:

After searching two floors and finding only Chinese porcelains, Miss Roberts wondered out loud whether she was in the wrong house. One of Mrs. Van Slyke’s relatives came to her assistance, pointing to a 12-by-18-inch trap door in the ceiling of a bedroom closet. She was told that the Continental porcelain was in the attic—‘but there’s no light up there.’ A lamp was rigged and she ventured up.

What Tish found were hundreds of pieces: vases, urns, platters, chargers, tea sets and figures, most of it Meissen but many by St. Cloud, Chantilly and other prominent manufacturers. Much of this treasure trove lay on the attic floor in shopping bags and boxes, as if stored away long ago and forgotten. It seemed never to have been displayed in the rather dilapidated and tiny house.

Tish presented the Van Slyke Collection with great fanfare in a hardback catalogue of the sort only the most magisterial collections of jewelry or Impressionist paintings warranted. And the sale was a triumph, with frenzied bidding and startling prices that even the business managers could applaud. Oh, the days of Tish Roberts at Sotheby’s, when porcelain was important!

But then, as so often is the case in the art market, when a great collection in this or that collecting field comes on the market it tends to capture the public’s interest, spur furious bidding at auction, raise price levels, and also even revive interest in a field that has slipped into the shadows, like porcelain.

 So when news of the historic sale at Christie’s of the Peggy and David Rockefeller Collection began amplifying in early spring of this year, around the time I reconnected with Tish, I contacted her with a plan to view the exhibition together, specifically the vast assemblage of Rockefeller porcelain.

The Rockefeller family has long been revered in the art market as one of the last great multi-generational families of porcelain hoarders, and the quality of the family’s combined holdings of porcelain is unsurpassed. At the sale in 2006 of Laurence Rockefeller’s collection, for example, half of it seemed to be comprised of exquisite English and Chinese export porcelain. And David and Peggy Rockefeller were known for swapping whole services of porcelain with their fancy friends, like Bunny Mellon, as they used it so often for entertainment.

Here, then, was the mother lode of porcelain, soon to be featured in a blockbuster auction comprising the contents of four homes, with magnificent paintings and decorative arts worthy of museums and all being sold to benefit charity. Could one possibly believe the dizzying prediction that the entire Rockefeller Collection would bring as much as one billion dollars? If so, the porcelain would be a stylish and lushly-photographed feature of the epic sale’s global promotion.

Armed with my pass for the Rockefeller exhibition I walked into the lounge area at Christie’s and found Tish deep in conversation with an old Sotheby’s colleague of ours, Bill Stahl, former head of the furniture departments. When not horseback riding in Millbrook, Bill is often in the city on art market business, representing his blue-chip rolodex of clients and acquaintances. A young lady from Christie’s approached to inform us that the Rockefeller catalogues were all sold out and that even the gallery guide was unavailable. But she happily escorted us up to the main saleroom on the second floor, where the most extraordinary scene awaited us.

In the center of the room was a white boxwood aviary with dovecote, the sound of birds emanating from atop. It was roped off to prevent indiscriminate browsing, as some of the greatest porcelain treasures in the Rockefeller Collection were on view within. Standing outside this folly you could look through and see the various works in the aviary, but only from behind. However, we went immediately inside for a personal tour by Carleigh Queenth of the Christie’s Porcelain Department, whom we knew well.

Carleigh has been at Christie’s for over thirty years, coming straight from college. Listening to her point out the various treasures arrayed all around us, with additional learned commentary from Tish, was like a seminar on porcelain rarities. Carleigh went about picking up items and showing us distinctive markings, commenting on glazes and encouraging Tish’s reminiscences of the Rockefellers. For she had summered with the family in Maine as a child and knew well their collecting tastes.

In the make-believe Rockefeller aviary we looked about us in wonder at all the porcelain wildlife: duck, turkey, woodcock and partridge tureens and covers, along with a striking object on lower shelves that immediately drew Tish’s eagle eye. It was a Chelsea ‘Hen and Chickens’ tureen and cover, circa 1755, modeled naturalistically with the large nesting speckled mother in feathers brightly colored brown, grey, puce, burnt-orange and yellow. Peeking out beneath feathers and wings were some six of the mother’s chicks, with another on her back forming the finial to the cover (as the catalogue description so eloquently conveyed). What a porcelain masterpiece of whimsy!

“Oh my goodness, there are two. How rare!” Tish exclaimed in wonder, spotting another ‘Hen and Chickens’ just like it in an adjoining cubbyhole only with different coloring. Apparently only eleven of these pieces were announced in the Chelsea catalogue of 1755, with two known to be in the Victoria & Albert Museum, another having been sold at Christie’s in London in 2003 for a whopping £223,500.

As recounted in a charming anecdote from David Rockefeller printed in the Christie’s catalogue, the two Chelsea ‘Hen and Chicks’ had come from a London dealer named Cecil Turner in 1958:

He had seen these tureens . . . and thought they were outstanding pieces which we should acquire, even though they seemed quite expensive to us at the time. He indicated that they had come from a castle . . .

The name of the castle we never learn, but the salesmanship by Mr. Turner must have been deft and effective. Interestingly, one notes in reading other reminiscences by David Rockefeller throughout the seven-volumes of the sumptuous Christie’s catalogue that, as with this purchase from Mr. Turner, the Rockefellers, despite their staggering, unlimited means, were mindful always of cost. Hence the following remembrance:

Although Peggy and I very much enjoyed visiting the Antique Porcelain Company, both in London and New York, we did not buy a great many things from them because their prices seemed so high.

Even so, the Rockefeller eye was unerring and often accounted for spectacular finds. For example, amidst the vast array of Chinese porcelain in the sale was a rare Chinese ‘Dragon’ bowl of 1426-1435 that the Rockefellers had on display unceremoniously in their summer home in Seal Harbor, Maine. Estimated at $100,000-150,000, with Chinese buyers bidding frantically for it, the sublime cobalt-blue piece made $2,772,500. This was a not uncommon theme throughout this sale, which brilliantly mixed fame with good taste and brought out hordes of buyers eager to associate themselves with something owned by the fabulous Rockefellers. Presale estimates were thus crushed again and again throughout this ‘white-glove’ sale, with every single lot sold.

Weary from walking about the many exhibition rooms and seeing so many treasures, Tish and I sat down for a brief chat before leaving Christie’s. This occasioned me to ask Tish for her thoughts on the current lack of interest in the porcelain market, despite the extreme phenomenon of the Rockefeller sale.

“Oh, it’s hard,” she said, again with that touch of wonder and exasperation. “Porcelain is fussy and old-fashioned. You have to know something about it to appreciate it. Young people are simply not interested.” By way of example, she mentioned how David Rockefeller and his siblings were taught the beauty and functionality of porcelain from childhood and thus became lifelong collectors. They inherited it, bought it, traded it, handed it down in the family. Nowadays, however, porcelain seems to go directly from acquisition to cold storage, never to be seen or used again.

Still, one wished to believe that the brilliant Rockefeller sales, with all those elegant and aristocratic pieces flowing out to new owners far and wide, might herald a renaissance in the porcelain market. I wasn’t sure about that, and neither was Tish. But it had been thrilling to walk about the exhibition, hearing the birds chirping in the boxwood aviary deep within Christie’s while having a master of porcelain like Tish Roberts describe to me the mysteries of many quaint and exotic relics—like the two Chelsea porcelain plaice tureens that had caused such a sensation before the sale. The scaly fish had their mouths open and ready to receive a spoon with a tailfin amidst seaweed and shells.

The pair seemed as fanciful and surrealistic as the $300,000 that someone paid for it—many multiples, no doubt, of what the thrifty Rockefellers had originally paid.

—Ronald Varney

(Image: Place setting from The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller. ©2018 Visko Hatfield for Christie’s Inc.)