David grew up with vast privilege but lived the family’s mantra that “to whom much is given, much is expected.” As a kid, he recalled roller skating to school up Fifth Avenue, followed by the family limousine. He gave more than $1 billion to charity during his lifetime. In signing the Gates-Buffett “Giving Pledge,” David wrote “those who have benefited the most from our nation’s economic system have a special responsibility to give back.”
As stipulated in David Rockefeller’s will, the proceeds from the Christie’s auction will go to 12 charities — including Harvard, the Museum of Modern Art, the Council on Foreign Relations and the American Farmland Trust.
“This auction is not about bringing wealth to members of the family,” David Jr. said. “It’s about doing very important things — bringing additional funds to institutes that my dad really cared about during his lifetime.”
Of course, the family will miss many of David’s properties and artworks. Family members were each allowed in David’s will to have up to $1 million in items from his estate, but the big prizes are all being sold.
“There are members of the family that are really sad about that,” he said. “I will certainly be wistful about the loss of the homes themselves because they were environments in which we grew up, we played, we got muddy in the streams and rode horses, and had games and all of those memories. But you know the memories still exist. I just hope other people will love the things as much as we did.”
Of course, the Rockefellers still have a large fortune. They don’t disclose financials.
Forbes estimated David Rockefeller’s net worth at over $3 billion, but that included the value of a trust in which he was a beneficiary. That trust, which some estimate was roughly half of his reported net worth, will now be passed down to his five children and 10 grandchildren. Over time, however, the money will dissipate — and the family’s influence will largely be through its philanthropy, which includes the Rockefeller Foundation, the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the David Rockefeller Fund. Combined the funds have a total endowments of over $5 billion.
David Jr. says he hopes the legacy of the Rockefellers isn’t about their wealth, but the more enduring causes that wealth has funded.
“I hope that our family legacy will be about a global perspective, not a narrow perspective,” he said. “I hope it will be about the importance of respecting the Earth and nature and the bounty of nature. I hope it will be about the importance of beauty in the world, manmade and natural, the importance of using your senses. I certainly hope it will be about generosity. Even people who don’t have a lot of money can still be generous as opposed to selfish or self-oriented.”
When I asked David Jr. about how he will feel the night of the auction, and whether he will regret the loss of so many family heirlooms, he replied: “You can’t take it with you. At the end of the day, it’s not the things themselves that matter in life.”