September 26, 2005

Lord Duveen & the modern art world

Posted at 8:02 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles

It is hard to overstate the impact that Lord Duven of Millbank had on the world of art dealing & collecting in the first half of the twentieth century. For many people however, his name is closely associated with the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, firstly with the gallery which takes his name & secondly for the controversial cleaning for which he was responsible.

Courier Journal (Louisville, Kentucky, USA)

Sunday, September 25, 2005
Book Review
The godfather of the modern art world
By Alfred R. Shands
Special to The Courier-Journal

We recently read about a Modigliani masterpiece that for many years was part of the Wendell Cherry art collection in Louisville, sold at auction for a cool $31 million. That event takes us directly back 60 years or more to Joseph Duveen, the most famous art dealer of all time, and the man who was godfather of the present day art world.

Duveen, with his practiced eye. incredible visual memory, charm and charisma (“like drinking champagne,” proclaimed an admirer) amassed a fortune selling expensive, top-of-the-line art to the rich. He was born in 1889 in England and died in 1939, just before the start of World War II. In that time, he selected and sold to the new-made American millionaires, the diamonds in the rough, like Mellon, Altman, Widener, Kress, Huntington, Morgan and Frick (to name just a few) hundreds and hundreds of Old Master paintings and decorative art pieces to help them achieve the aristocratic social status for which they longed. Duveen realized that these phenomenally rich men aspired to the culture and grandeur of European aristocrats who had become unexpectedly short of cash. He became the connecting link, offering the Americans his impeccable taste, connoisseurship and social graces in exchange for big bucks for his galleries in Paris. London and Fifth Avenue.

If all this seems a bit crass, don’t forget that most of the Old Master works of art we so admire in major American museums today are there because their new owners donated them to the public years later, making first-class European art available to us all. The National Gallery in Washington — the Mellon Gallery — would have very little to admire without the paintings Duveen selected and ferreted out of European collections.

Meryle Secrest is well qualified for her subject, having previously written biographies of Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark, with whom Duveen had many dealings. She has now produced a definitive biography of this master art dealer, “Duveen, A Life in Art”. Those who are fascinated by the pursuit of art and the high jinks behind the scenes will savor every detail in this book. It’s sheer entertainment.

Duveen was a master in going after his clients by any means he could devise, outsmarting his gallery competitors like Agnew or Knoedler with secret service tactics. Secrest substantiates a tale often told in museum circles that Duveen rented an apartment directly beneath Andrew Mellon’s in Washington, filled it with very expensive paintings and antiques he wanted to sell, and left for Europe for the summer, entrusting Mellon with the key. When he returned, Mellon wanted everything!

All biographies ultimately boil down to the persona of the subject, and though Secrest seems to have a fondness and sympathy for Duveen and his accomplishments that were many, she can’t quite convince us that he was more than a big success in his field. He loved most the thrill of pursuit, both the art and the buyer. He could bedazzle. He was admired for his cleverness, but possessed by his success. As a figure of greatness he never emerges out of the sales gallery. This is no fault of the author. Duveen’s final years were clouded by his notorious and damaging over-cleaning of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, a step that horrified art lovers. He left behind a gift of a new wing at the Tate Gallery in London, on which he strongly imposed his own taste and imprimatur. It is very grand.

One of the most valuable parts of the book is a list of the staggering amount of first-class art that Duveen sold between 1900 and 1939 and where it is today.

The writer is an Episcopal priest and art collector who lives in Louisville.

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