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The Art of the Deal


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 of fabulously wealthy American industrialists and entrepreneurs made rich by America’s remarkable economic growth developed a competitive interest in the Old World’s finest works of art. The Europeans disgorged their cultural riches; the American millionaires, helped by Duveen, bought them.

A list of these rich American collectors—among them Cornelius Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Ben Altman, Peter and Joseph Widener, Henry Walters, Henry O. Havemeyer, William Randolph Hearst, Henry Clay Frick, Henry Huntington, Samuel H. Kress, and Andrew Mellon—is an inventory of the triumphs of American capitalism in coal, iron, and steel, retailing and banking, communications and transport. The scale of this collecting was unparalleled. When J.P. Morgan died in 1913 his collections were valued at some $60 million; they would be worth billions today. Benjamin Altman, who also died that year, left a picture collection worth $20 million. William Randolph Hearst was spending about $5 million a year at the peak of his collecting. Samuel H. Kress amassed a collection of 3,210 works of art. But these famous, often obsessive collectors, the men and women Duveen liked to work with, were only the most visible manifestation of a much broader phenomenon in which America’s well-to-do citizens appropriated the cultural treasures of Europe, decorating their houses in what is best described as plutocratic pastiche.

The full extent of this cultural migration is almost impossible to measure, but we get some sense of its impact from the price lists that Secrest uses and that were assembled by Gerald Reitlinger in his classic study The Economics of Taste.1 Almost every sort of artwork and antique rose sharply in price after the 1880s. This was true not just of old master paintings, but of Limoges enamels, Italian faience, Ch’ing dynasty porcelain, and late Gothic, Renaissance, English, and above all French furniture. In 1902 a gold-ground tapestry panel—the Mazarin tapestry—sold for between £65,000 and £72,000, at a time when the pound was worth nearly five dollars. Any item of furniture associated with the French royal family—a commode or escritoire—fetched a huge price.

The works of individual artists also leaped in value. Between 1870 and 1912 the cost of works by Fragonard increased between ten- and twenty-fold. Titian’s Man in a Red Cap, sold in 1876 for £94 and 10 shillings, reached a price of £50,000 in 1915. Rembrandt’s Nicholas Ruts cost £375 in 1850 but £30,000 in 1904. At first other rich collectors, notably the European and English branches of the Rothschild family, took part in this spending spree, but in the decade before the First World War all the top prices were paid by Americans. The one exception was the world-record £310,000 paid by the tsar of Russia for the Benois Madonna of Leonardo in order to prevent its acquisition at the same price by Duveen for Henry Clay Frick.

In much of Europe these developments were met with consternation. “Has America at last got it all?” asked The Year’s Art in 1910.2 France, Italy, and Greece all enacted legislation to protect their cultural patrimony. In Britain, where free trade was a shibboleth, prominent members of the establishment set up the National Art Collections Fund, a private charitable body to raise funds to compete with foreign buyers in the art marketplace. Such measures could staunch but not stop the flow of cultural goods that continued unabated until the American markets collapsed in 1929.

Duveen Brothers played a major part in this bull market for the decorative and fine arts, and Joseph Duveen was a key intermediary in developing some of the most important fine art collections in America, including those that still survive in the Frick and Metropolitan Museums in New York, the Huntington Art Gallery in Los Angeles, and the National Gallery in Washington. But there have always been two obstacles to a fair assessment of the Duveen enterprise. The first is Duveen himself. He was, as his first biographer, the dramatist S.M. Behrman, remarked, “the most spectacular art dealer of all time,” a man who relished publicity and worked every bit as hard to inflate his public reputation as he did the prices of old master art. Most art dealers in the early twentieth century were shy of the press. Duveen was a news hound. He spoke to journalists constantly; he had a special relationship with The New York Times, a big promoter of the great American collectors like Morgan and Frick; and he monitored news coverage of his firm’s activities, assembling a vast archive of reports from the European and American press, which he frequently attempted to manipulate. He would doubtless be delighted to know that in 2004 he is not only the subject of Meryle Secrest’s monumental biography but also one of the main characters in Simon Gray’s London West End play The Old Masters.

What Duveen told the world was what he thought it should hear. He set out to project himself as the most visible and important art dealer in the world, a monopolist in great art serving monopoly capitalists, who only bought the best and only paid the highest prices. As his friends all remarked, he was a brilliant storyteller and, like practically every other great raconteur and salesman, Duveen was habitually prone to be economical with the truth. He saw hyperbole as a form of understatement. As a result it is difficult to get beyond the many stories, some apocryphal, most unsubstantiated, that Duveen told about his triumphs in manipulating prices and buyers and engrossing the richest collectors. The problem is obvious in S.N. Behrman’s witty and beautifully written biography of 1952, originally composed as a series of articles for The New Yorker and recently reprinted.3 Behrman never had access to any of Duveen Brothers’ records. Instead he talked to friends and clients of Duveen, former employees in the firm, the widows of collectors, and collaborators like Kenneth Clark and Bernard Berenson, and quizzed them about Duveen and his dealings. He portrays a genial giant manipulator—no other dealer matters, no other member of the firm is important, collectors and the public are as putty in his hands. This is Duveen as he would have liked to be remembered, the man who single-handedly masterminded the old master world.

But other dealers were equally important. The first great old master collection in the United States, that of Isabella Stewart Gardner, was the work of another dealership, Colnaghi’s. Joseph Widener’s most important pictures were almost all purchased through the London dealer Agnew’s. Henry Clay Frick only became Duveen’s client toward the end of the plutocrat’s life. Equally, Joseph Duveen, as Secrest points out, was no more than the firm’s salesman. He would never have succeeded without the teams of scouts and researchers who tracked down pictures for the firm. Nor did Duveen always get his way with collectors, some of whom, like Carl Hamilton, were well capable of bamboozling him. There were great successes but, as Secrest shows, there were also some spectacular failures.

Getting at the truth about Duveen, past the flummery, extravagance, and exaggeration, has been so difficult because Duveen and the firm always combined secrecy with publicity. They went to great lengths to conceal their activities, not least because some of their actions—spying on customers (Andrew Mellon was followed around for years), reading the contents of their wastebaskets, and bribing their servants for information—were at best morally dubious and possibly illegal. Correspondence and cables were written in code (albeit a rather crude one) and given special names. Bernard Berenson, famously, was called “Doris.” No one outside the firm had access to its archives, which were a jealously guarded resource. This situation continued after Duveen’s death, when Duveen Brothers had become the newly incorporated and immodestly named Imperial Art Corporation, run by three former Duveen employees, including Edward Fowles, who eventually became sole proprietor. In 1964 Fowles sold the firm to the Californian collector Norton Simon, who was chiefly interested in acquiring its substantial stock. (If you want to know what the Duveen firm then had in its basement you can visit the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.)

  1. 1

    Gerald Reitlinger, The Economics of Taste, Volume 1: The Rise and Fall of the Picture Market, 1760–1960; Volume 2: The Rise and Fall of the Objets d’Art Market Since 1750 (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964–1965).

  2. 2

    Quoted in Reitlinger, The Economics of Taste, Vol. 2, p. 236.

  3. 3

    S.N. Behrman, Duveen: The Story of the Most Spectacular Art Dealer of All Time, with an introduction by Glen Lowry (The Little Book Room, 2003).

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