Dapperly dressed, living in the best hotels, and often mentioned in the headlines of the world press, Joseph Duveen (1869–1939), the subject of Meryle Secrest’s new biography, was the great showman of the art market. Chief partner of the powerful art firm of Duveen Brothers, Joseph made some of the most spectacular art sales of the twentieth century, particularly of old masters, and was feared and admired by fellow dealers and clients. Known as a bon viveur, never without a cigar in hand, he had a reputation as a hard-nosed negotiator who would nickel-and-dime an old friend, but then impulsively shower him with lavish presents. Rumors abounded of his powers of persuasion, many encouraged by Duveen himself, but it has always been hard to see much beyond the jovial but steely salesman who was much talked about, widely acquainted, but little known.
Duveen was an uncomplicated man whose unabashed enthusiasm for artworks not only helped sales but infected all those who dealt with him. The mordant Andrew Mellon, one of Duveen’s best clients in the 1930s, parried an outburst of praise for one of his pictures with the sardonic remark, “Lord Duveen, my pictures never look so marvelous as when you are here!” Kenneth Clark, the art historian and director of London’s National Gallery, remarked that “when he was present everyone behaved as if they had had a couple of drinks.” Mary Berenson, wife of the famous connoisseur Bernard Berenson, compared his presence to drinking champagne. Berenson himself, less kindly, said it was more like slopping down gin. Duveen seems to have been fully endowed with the qualities of a salesman, but was there anything more to this engaging but rather transparent character? This is the question that haunts Secrest’s biography.
Duveen’s fame (perhaps notoriety is a better term) derives from the way in which he helped foster and exploit one of the most extraordinary migrations of cultural treasures that ever took place. Between the 1880s and the Wall Street Crash of 1929, old masters, contemporary paintings, modern art, furniture, silver, Chinese porcelains, rare books and manuscripts, altarpieces and church decoration, medieval architecture, clocks, reliquaries, carpets, armor, tiles, coins, and every conceivable bibelot were shipped in unprecedented numbers out of Europe and into the United States. Such flows of art had happened before, but, like the Roman plundering of Sicily or the mass accumulations of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic regimes, they were usually the booty of war. In this case cultural treasures were moved by Adam Smith’s invisible hand, not the force of arms.
The causes and consequences of this migration are well known. As Secrest reminds us, in the late nineteenth century European agricultural revenues collapsed as cheap grain imported from the United States produced a precipitate fall in food prices. The leading members of the British and European aristocracy, the holders of most of the Continent’s cultural treasures, faced mounting debts and possible insolvency. In North America a number …