The Estate of David Rockefeller and the “Rockefeller Beetles”

David Rockefeller, former chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank and patriarch of the Rockefeller family, died in 2017.  He was the grandson of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller and at the time of his death his estate was estimated to be valued at over $3 billion.  His wealth consisted of interests in family trusts, real estate, a massive art collection, and more. 

In addition, Rockefeller had a unique hobby.  He collected beetles – the bugs, not the cars.  He’d been doing so since he was a young boy and had amassed a collection of over 150,000 beetles, more than 10,000 different species.  The collection was one of the largest of its kind and included big, colorful, iridescent beetles as well as lots of the small, brown, creepy kinds.  It was housed in a special room in Rockefeller’s Manhattan townhouse during his lifetime.

At his death, in his estate plan, Rockefeller gave the beetles to Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.   He also gave $250,000 to install and maintain the collection.  The “Rockefeller Beetles” exhibit at the museum opened in late 2018 and currently displays a portion of the collection.  I had the pleasure of visiting the museum recently and stumbling across this unexpected new exhibit.

My visit got me thinking about Rockefeller’s estate plan and the implications of his unique charitable gift.  If Rockefeller included the gift of the beetles to Harvard in his estate plan, the beetles would be includible in his sizeable estate for estate tax purposes, but the estate would take a charitable deduction on his estate tax return for the charitable gift.  If Rockefeller had not included the gift of the beetles to Harvard in his estate plan, but his heirs chose to donate them to the museum after his death, the beetles would have been includible in his estate, passed to his heirs, and generated estate tax, but his heirs would be able to take a charitable deduction on their income tax returns. 

Either way, the beetles had to be valued.  The Executor of Rockefeller’s estate would have had to report the value of the beetles on his estate tax return.  So, I wonder, how do you value beetles?  Hire a beetle appraiser?  Research recent sales of other beetle or bug collections?  Put them on the market and see what museums or personal collectors offer to pay?  Would Harvard value them?  I don’t know and I don’t think there is a lot of precedent.  I would love to find out what the estate attorney did and how the beetles were valued and reported on Rockefeller’s estate tax return. 

If you find yourself in Harvard Square this spring or summer, consider a quick stop to view the Rockefeller Beetles.  If nothing else, you will learn something quite unique about one of America’s wealthiest men.  And if you are squeamish, consider my 8 year old daughter’s advice and go before lunch.

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