Two weeks ago 1,500 pieces of fine art, furniture, porcelain, and jewelry from my parents’ estate were auctioned off to people from 53 countries in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. With sales totaling $832.6 million, it was the highest sum ever realized from a private estate auction. All of the proceeds will go to twelve of my parents’ favorite non-profit organizations and institutions for scientific research, education, the arts, foreign affairs, and the conservation of coastal and agricultural lands.
On the day of the auction, Christie’s was buzzing with excitement as people filed in to their New York City auction house to view the items and place bids. I chose not to attend, instead staying home with my husband and two close friends, preferring to have privacy to weep or cheer as feelings arose.
The occasion felt to me like a time to symbolically honor my parents. Before the first night’s auction began I set our dining table with some of their finest linens—which I had gratefully inherited—along with china they gave us for our wedding. Then I donned a fancy dress and jewelry, evoking the bygone era when much to my father’s pleasure, my mother would dress up for dinner every night. We popped some champagne and toasted my parents for their eyes for beautiful things, for sharing them with family and friends, and for their foresight in later, for leaving them to others around the world to acquire and enjoy.
As the auction began each item felt like an old friend. I knew in which house and room it once lived, and exactly where it had been placed. I said goodbye inwardly to each that joined the worldwide diaspora of beauty and wished it well with its new owners.
I feel proud that my parents chose to designate all proceeds to benefit causes and institutions they cared deeply about and I am happy that the new owners of these treasures will keep my parents’ memory alive.
It seems fitting to share the following poem, which I wrote shortly before the auction.
What are works of art but mirrors to our selves?
A Colonial cast iron spade by John Ames
or a smooth bronze sculpture shaped by Henry Moore;
both of them serve and deserve a place outdoors
or in the sky of mind.
One begs the foot to drive it down, deep in soil.
The other draws a hand over the smooth shape of soul.
Choose what you like, what draws you close
enough to feel the imprint on your foot or cheek.
What will you unearth? What do you seek?
If you think these things belong to you,
look again, in the carrots that grow in green top rows
from space dug by spade for seeds;
or your face reflected in the brown bronze shoulder
shaped by fire and brawn.
We love what gives us joy and strength or pause..
In the loving an alchemy is born.
We are not so much possessors
as possessed by what we owned or lost.
April 8, 2018
I viewed the exhibit at Christie’s and felt your parents love for each item, but the bigger love in the room was the act of letting go of so much beauty and that each object evoked a family memory that now would be a gift to help others. #rockefeller❤️
Hi Karen. Thanks for writing. I really appreciate your comment. The act of letting go is always an act of love. It teaches us about unconditional love, be it an artifact of beauty or a child. I’m glad that these objects will find new homes and embody new stories!
Beautiful poem that speaks a lot to my feelings about the possessions I have in trust from my parents and grandparents… and the items that passed from our family to others who hopefully are as changed and comforted as we were., by the beauty, meaningfulness, memories of the past, memories yet to be made.
Hi Sally. Yes, always memories to be made. That is the hope with each of these beautiful things. Thanks for writing. I hope you are well. Blessings, Eileen
Beautifully and thoughtfully told Eileen. Thank you for sharing. A reminder of what is possible when letting go and mindfulness intersect.
Thanks Steve. It certainly has been a learning curve for me! I’m glad to have the support and understanding of friends like you.
I remembre my first visit to your parents’ house in Tareyton when I asked your permission for me to visit the house so I would be able to view all the beautiful paintings. You gave me your permission and I was able to have that enjoyment while you where attending the “cousins’ meeting”. Your parents’ gesture remind me of the beautiful paintings and your family’s generosity and high Valdes. Jackie Nadel, nanny to Adam and Danny.
Dear Jacqui, I’m so glad you were able to view those beautiful things in person so long ago. Hard to believe that that would have been about 32 years ago now! I hope this finds you well. With warmest wishes, Eileen
The incomparable success of the auction at Christie’s is only the most recent expression of your parents’ belief in “giving back.”
In the roughly 150 years since John D. Rockefeller became the most successful businessman of (I guess) all time, much has been spoken and written—from praise to blame—about the Rockefellers. But I think that on at least two important points, charity and quality, nearly everyone would agree: charity in the sense of an extraordinary practice of giving generously to improve people’s lives; and quality in the sense of an enduring commitment to doing one’s best and preserving the best.
I imagine that “bittersweet” describes what you and the other members of your immediate family must have felt as you saw so many of the treasures you had lived go out into the world.
I love the last lines of your poem:
“We are not so much possessors
as possessed by what we owned or lost.”
Thanks for your thoughts Richard. I guess in hindsight I would say “generosity” and quality and rather than charity and quality, because even though my parents supported many individuals they gave unconditionally to organizations that aligned with their values. But in all things they were indeed generous, and the Christie’s auction is no exception. Glad you liked the last two lines of my poem! They found me!
Your lovely poem encompasses the magnet of the material world and the juxtaposition of charity. As a society we need and depend on the genius of foresight to create wealth and the kindness to dispense of it with equal genius. Remembering each and every piece of art that was sold is the sentiment your parents gave you. Their happiness in collecting brought you joy and tears. As you continue to share the David and Peggy Rockefeller wealth, you will gain an infinite amount of gratification. So, I have to ask you, what did you wear for your dinner party; what jewelry of your mother’s sparkled you skin; what delicious food did you serve, especially, dessert and what did you talk about? Are your writing poems about some of the pieces in the collection?
I just told my youngest son who graduated from college last week that “Independence is a wonderful state. He should enjoy it to the fullest of his ability!”
To you I exclaim enjoy rebuilding something, someplace of value that gives strength to your days and family. Your parents found delight–so will you…
Dear Elaine, yes, delight abounds! Especially at this time of year when nature is bursting with life and beauty. Nothing of beauty lasts forever, which is why it is so precious. I’m glad you recognize the importance of independence in your children. May they be well. May all be well. Eileen
Eileen,Much respect for this huge donation to needy people and causes..Delighted to read this good news…Im from Ireland and often wondered is there any Irish in your family due to your first name?
from Roisin Casey.
Hello Roisin, Yes I believe there is some Irish in me! both the red head and the occasional temper! But more than that I resonate with the Irish landscape which, in many ways is like the Maine coast.
Dear Eileen. What an amazing event. Yours has always been a very generous family. I especially remember the Monet water lilies going up the stairs in Sleepy Hollow house. Where did they go? They were the first I had seen and I always think of your family house when I see some in Paris. Love. Anne
Dear Anne, How wonderful to share that memory with you of the Monet’s going up the stairs! It was never so beautiful again after the two of the three were sold or given for sale to benefit the Rockefeller University. But they kept the most beautiful one, which was at the base of the stairs. It was a privilege to have had any of them for as long as my parents did and I never tired of their beauty. So good to hear from you. I hope you are well and thriving. xoxo, Eileen
I first met you when you were immersing yourself in the concept of “simple living.” At the center of that ideal is the truth you express in your poem: We are not so much possessors
as possessed by what we own, or owned… or lost.
I like the image of you dressing elegantly for dinner the night of the auction, in tribute to a way of life that was yours that is no more. How elegant; how thoughtful. How Eileen!
Dear Wanda, It was a way of honoring my parents and that felt good! It feels good to have balance; from simple to elegant. Both are good! xoxo, Eileen
Thank you, Eileen, for sharing your experience and insights of this remarkable experience. One can only imagine growing up in a house with so much beauty everywhere you turn, I love how you express your relationship with it all through this transition. Lovely.
Thanks for your support. I am sure you know about being surrounded with beauty because you do that all the time and within yourself! Thanks for the beautiful person you are, through and through.
Dearest Eileen: How fortunate your parents were to have you for a daughter…truly their greatest treasure…neither to be bought or sold…
Dear Joanne, your comment touched me deeply. I do think our children are our greatest treasures. And I feel my parents were mine as well. Warmest wishes, Eileen
Eileen, your poem is so deeply felt and the beauty you express is a reflection of your beautiful soul!
Thanks Louise. It takes one to know one! love, Eileen
Thank you, Eileen, for expressing your thoughts about possessions, memory, family, and the transient nature of our existence. I was lucky enough to spend about 15 minutes in your father,s home (waiting for Paul who was staying there) and I distinctly remember the feeling of being surrounded by both Profound beauty and simple comfort. There was an elegance but also a great ease about the room. And being alone with the art made me dizzy with pleasure. I feel very lucky to have experienced the sophistication as well as the hominess of the room – really a treasured memory.
You are your parents best gift to the world, among countless gifts. Your eloquent thoughts about how objects are attached to moments and memories are a gift to all who read your armchair wisdom. And in a time when people are simplifying their lives – it seems as if our children have gotten this message pretty well, that “stuff” is not as important as “being” – it is still thought-provoking to contemplate how many memories are evoked by seeing an object and remembering the room or circumstance it came from. And now your parent’s possessions have a new meaning – giving pleasure to people all over the world and bringing change and success to favorite charities. Wonderful!
Dear Laurie, Thanks so much for your beautiful response! I think you nailed it about “profound beauty and simple comfort.” That was my parents’ genius. Thanks too for your generous comment about being my parents’ gift… I think that is the great hope that all parents hold – that their children be a gift to the world. And each of us is in our own unique way. There’s room for all of us! (At least so far!) Warmest wishes, Eileen
Shelley and I loved our visit to the house, several years ago. I saw all the pieces in their place. I am very moved by your parents gesture of giving the proceeds to the organizations that they loved. My love to you and your three men.
Dear Paul, love to you and Shelly too. I’m so glad you had the opportunity to see the house in Tarrytown a few years back. It was a joy to share it with our friends.
I bid on the Seth Thomas “beehive” clock, but was woefully outbid. What will become of your father’s books? I have a couple of copies of “Memoirs” signed by your father, but would love to own something that came from his personal library. Will these also be auctioned off, or have they been dispersed among the family? Thank you, David Brown
Dear David, Sorry you were outbid on the “beehive” clock. I’m not sure what one that was? Unfortunately Christies chose not to include the books in the auction. If you email me at my contact on this website I will see if there are any that might still be available for sale. Please include what kind of books you were hoping to buy. All best, Eileen
Dear Eileen, I looked under the “Contact” place, but didn’t see a contact email listed for you. The clock I bid on was lot #1726 of the Online Sale. It was a little Seth Thomas clock. I’m not sure why it was described as a “beehive” clock. It looks more like a Gothic arch to me!
As far as what books I’d be looking for, I really wouldn’t know. I’d love to see a list of what he had, if they ever came up for auction somewhere. The one book I’d really be interested to read would be “Scientific Adventures in the American Southwest”, or any other book that your father had privately printed…..or something about beetles that he particularly liked. I still find it so interesting that such a brilliant and complex man had such a unique hobby. I never knew how beautiful beetles were until I read this about him and bought the book “An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles”. How wonderful!
I’ll look into whether there are extras of my Dad’s book about beetle collecting in the American Southwest. You can write me at [email protected]
Love your observations, musings, dressing up the day of the auction and surrounding yourself
with innate “beauty” of friends and family. We come from different sides of the world yet are both grieving the loss of a parent in 2017 and saying farewell to many of our childhood possessions, memories from the past. I share your feelings. And, hearing your account of this “letting go” helps me let go, too. Your poem is wonderful! Loved the last line especially: “We are not so much possessors as possessed by what we owned or lost”.
The real memories will always remain in our hearts.
The real treasure is you.
Dear Phyll, Isn’t it wonderful to know that we each are treasures to our parents or children, siblings, or friends or animals? Treasures abound for the looking, and it is good to look in the mirror once in a while too! I’m glad if my post helped you in letting your own mother go. I remember after each of my parents died, there was a period of time where I wanted to go with them. Gradually that was replaced by the daily intake of beauty and love around me, but each of us has our own timing. Be good to yourself and I hope to see you in Vermont before long. Love, Eileen
Hie Eileen Greetings from Zimbabwe! What a beautiful piece. I can relate to the feeling especially when I go to a place called Chivhu in rural Zimbabwe where there are the few pieces of furniture serve as a reminder of the life that I had with my late mother. I liked the poem very much. I think that your parents even when they have passed on their legacy of giving still lives on and the proceeds will indeed touch many lives. Please keep writing and inspiring. Moses Machipisa
Dear Moses, it was lovely to get your beautiful response. Thanks for connecting from so far away. The space of the heart has a different sense of geography! I will keep writing! All best, Eileen