December 24, 2004

Lord Duveen

Posted at 9:20 am in British Museum, Elgin Marbles

It would be no exaggeration to say that Lord Duveen made a huge contribution to the British art world in the 20th century. Not only was he responsible for the funding of numerous galleries, but his methods of dealing in artworks largely defined the way that the art market operates today.
However, with his wealth & power he was free to inflict his own opinions on how things ought to be done & people desperate for the money would often ignore other ethical concerns in their pursuit of his funding. This is what happened during the building of the Duveen Gallery at the British Museum, where his insistence on whitening the sculptures to match his view of how they should look lead to the Elgin Marbles cleaning controversy in the 1930s.
A recent biography & play look at the life of the greatest collector of the 20th century.


Thu., December 23, 2004 Tevet 11, 5765
Buying high, selling higher
By Michael Handelzalts
Taking advantage of the fact that Europe had art and America had money, art dealer Joseph Duveen became a legend in his time and created, almost single-handedly, the collections of the great U.S. museums. A recent biography and a new play shed light on his dramatic and colorful life.

Even now, at the outset of the third millennium, after September 11 and after the world’s stock exchanges have crashed more than once, some works of art – those that turn up occasionally and are not in museums – continue to command prices of hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars in auctions. However, most of the sales are made by the large auction houses and the buyers insist on anonymity. In the midst of all this, the art dealer, who brokers between price and soul and knows how to turn a picture into money, remains in the shadows. It is doubtful whether, other than in the auction house and the circles of anonymous collectors, there is a character as gargantuan and colorful as Joseph Duveen (1869-1939), who dominated the international art market in the first half of the 20th century.

The renewed interest in Duveen and in the group of people among, for and thanks to whom he worked, has been generated from two unconnected directions. The first is the English stage. The veteran English dramatist Simon Gray has written a play entitled “The Old Masters,” dealing with the final legendary, highly charged and deeply meaningful meeting, in 1937, between Duveen and art connoisseur, critic and collector Bernard Berenson. This encounter marked the end of a cooperation that dated back more than 20 years, which was highly lucrative to both sides. The play, produced by the Birmingham Repertory Theater Company and appearing through this week at London’s Comedy Theater, is directed by Harold Pinter and stars Edward Fox (Berenson), Peter Bowles (Duveen) and Barbara Jefford (as Berenson’s wife, Mary). The creators of the play and everyone involved in it also deserve the accolade of “Old Masters,” which is generally reserved for artists who were active between the 12th and 17th centuries, mainly in Italy. This was the sphere of the joint activity – and of the dispute – between Duveen and Berenson.

The second locus of the renewed interest in Duveen is a new biography of him by the veteran biographer Meryle Secrest (“Duveen: A Life in Art,” Knopf, 2004). For her, the occupation with the details of the life of Duveen – the offspring of a Jewish merchant family from Holland, who rose to greatness as the shaper of the lifestyle, artistic taste and national art collections of the United States – was the closing of a circle. Her first book, in 1967, was a biography of Berenson, who was know as “B.B.” long before Brigitte Bardot was born.

Berenson, the son of immigrants from Lithuania, who studied at Harvard and, thanks to his skills and charm, was adopted by the university’s fat cats, was known for his love of Italian art. He settled in a villa near Florence called “I Tatti” and from there published his writings, which catalogued Italian Renaissance art, and made his name as a nonpareil authority in identifying and authenticating works of art.

While working on her story of the life of Berenson – a life that was in itself more than sufficiently colorful – Secrest requested access to the Duveen family archives, but was turned down. She therefore turned to writing about other biography-worthy figures: Kenneth Clark, who played a significant role in the world of international art, including a part in the relations between Berenson and Duveen; and the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Then came biographies of three famous members of the musical world: Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Richard Rodgers. It is only now, after Edward Fowles, the last director of the Duveen Archive (who worked for Duveen’s father and was Joseph’s close adviser for most of his life) decided to transfer the archive to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which in turn gave it to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, making it accessible to the public, that Secrest returned to the questions she had when beginning her biography of Berenson.

Special status

It is difficult today to appreciate the special status that Duveen had in the international art market between the two world wars. His most popular biographer, S.N. Behrman, wrote a series of articles about him for The New Yorker, which he then collected and published as a book in 1951. Along with an extremely vivid account of Duveen’s life and character, Behrman put his finger on the reasons for Duveen’s singularity, writing that Duveen discerned that “Europe had plenty of art and America had plenty of money,” and was able to make that disparity work for him.

Secrest fills the formula up with details: In Europe there were members of the nobility who owned art treasures, but had lost their fortunes because the agriculture on which they depended was superseded by cheap American farming techniques. In the U.S., in the meantime, there emerged a class of millionaires lacking tradition and family renown, who were looking for added value for the money at their disposal. Well before Duveen, art dealers saw an opportunity to act as brokers, but none of them took advantage of it as he did.

Secrest starts her story, as behooves a serious biography, with the family tree. If until now, Duveen was known (in Behrman’s biography, too) as the son of small merchants from Holland who achieved success first in England and then in the U.S., thanks to his personal gifts, Secrest now reveals that the family was already dealing in art back in the 18th century, in Paris; a branch of the family also reached Holland. Generations of Duveens were dealers in antiques, but it was Joel Joseph Duveen, the father of the protagonist of Secrest’s biography, who turned the business into a flourishing enterprise. He was sent by the family to England to sell Delft porcelain to the British. While still an apprentice clerk at a porcelain shop in Hull, he discovered that competitors were seizing control of his employers’ suppliers. One morning he went to the port, listened to the conversations and found out who was leaking the inside information. This was a great lesson, one he transmitted to his sons after him: namely, that information is worth money and is therefore worth investing in. Joel Duveen’s son would elevate this skill to the level of art.

Joel Duveen was ready to pursue information to get in ahead of the competition and purchase goods, even before he knew whether there would be anyone to sell them to. Together with relatives from the Dutch branch of the family, he would scour the length and breadth of Europe in order to find items of furniture and wall tapestries, with which he made his reputation as a dealer. He also taught his brother Henry (who founded the Boston, and than New York branch of the family business) a lesson in the basics of selling. One day an American millionaire from San Francisco (probably C.P. Huntington) entered the Duveen brothers’ store in New York. He didn’t show much interest in the art objects. Joel Duveen invited him to the second floor to see the tapestries, emphasizing that they were “not for sale.” The guest immediately began to take an interest and asked what their price was. Duveen was evasive. Finally the man offered $175,000. Duveen balked at this, saying he would not sell the items for more than their worth – $150,000. Duveen didn’t lose money on the transaction, but was willing to forgo an even higher profit to acquire a client who would return to do business with his family.

Among the grateful buyers were the Prince of Wales and his wife. When the prince ascended the British throne as King Edward VII, the Duveens were invited to furnish gloomy Windsor Castle. Duveen also taught his son the proper attitude toward wealthy buyers: credit with no time limit and willingness to buy artwork back at any time for the price at which it was sold, less 10 percent. Duveen was thus able to survive the crisis in the art market that followed the onset of the Depression in 1929. There were some pictures and collections that he sold two or three times. He sold Rembrandt’s “Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer” to Arabella Huntington in 1907. At her death, her son, who inherited the painting, refused to sell it to the Huntington collection, and sold it back to Duveen. The picture went to Alfred Erickson of McCann-Erickson Advertising firm, for $750,000. Came the 1929 crash, and when Erickson went to Duveen’s gallery, Joseph, fully aware that these were not buying times, offered to buy the painting back for $500,000. When times got better, Duveen sold the painting to Erickson again, for $590,000. In 1961 the Metropolitan Museum bought it for $2.3 million.

Green, not blue

The English and Dutch branches of the family intermarried, with the Dutch spouse generally taking the name Duveen. Joseph Joel Duveen and his wife, Rosetta, had 15 children, three of whom died young. Every evening (when Joel was not away on one of his frequent trips), eight sons and four daughters sat down to the evening meal. The head of the family declared at the start of the repast that no one was to speak unless spoken to. The close family relations were also a constant source of disagreements. Envy almost caused a rift between Joel and his brother Henry, who managed the American part of the business. Only the intervention of their sister, Betsy, who made the two meet, saved the day. Joel, though, did not believe in dividing the inheritance: He made Joseph, the firstborn, his heir when the son was still a boy of 10. The boy accompanied his father on buying trips that were marked by quick decisions and willingness to pay high prices, in the belief that buyers would be found.

It was Joseph Duveen who started to show an interest in paintings, too. However, he did not buy single works. He preferred to invest in the purchase of whole collections, spending millions, which he obtained through various loans. He understood that in negotiations with high-born people who needed money and had artistic treasures, there was no point in asking the price of a painting. The tactic was to offer a high, round sum for the entire collection and then set the price of individual works, which would be offered to American millionaires, who would be persuaded to believe that this was the only, the true – the special painting. With this approach Duveen set the price levels in the art market. He liked to buy high and sell even higher. What set him apart from his competitors was his belief that he had the right buyers for the works he acquired. If another dealer outbid him in an auction, paying a higher price than he had offered, and then sold the painting to the latest American millionaire, Duveen would smile and turn the defeat into a victory. That is excellent, he would say, because those who buy at high prices from the competition would now be ripe for him.

Between the world wars he became a constant presence among the American upper class. His uncle, Henry, sold to Benjamin Altman and to J.P. Morgan; his father sold to Henry Huntington. Joseph Duveen was the adviser to Arabella Huntington on matters of design, furniture, hairdo and jewelry. He gained the trust of both her husbands (both from the Huntington family). Indeed, one of his purchases for Henry and Arabella was Gainsborough’s famous “The Blue Boy.” According to Behrman, the Huntingtons saw a reproduction of the painting in 1921 during a transatlantic cruise with Duveen. Huntington asked about it and Duveen explained its importance in British art. The Huntingtons disembarked in France, while Duveen went on to England, heading from the port straight to the home of the Duke of Westminster, from whom he bought the painting (along with another Gainsborough and a Reynolds) for $800,000 and brought “The Blue Boy” to the Huntingtons in Paris, for $728,800. They were delighted, but disappointed that the figure in the painting was green and not blue. Duveen told them not to worry, as it would revert to its original blue color after cleaning and restoration. And so it did.

Duveen’s American clients wanted their Old Masters to look like new. They also had an aversion to dark colors, under-dressed women, ugly faces and inharmonious compositions. He never managed to make them covet his favorite, Rubens. But he knew how to exploit their taste for his own purposes. A buyer who wanted a painting which Duveen had earmarked for someone else was told that the work showed homosexuals alongside Venus; they reverted to being straight for the buyer whom Duveen thought should acquire the painting – at the right price. Every painting Duveen acquired underwent cleaning and restoration by experts who worked for him in London, Paris and New York.

This practice is no longer acceptable to museums and art scholars, but it was part of the world of the larger-than-life Duveen. Secrest, aware that Behrman painted Duveen’s portrait using Duveen’s techniques – in bold, sharply contrasting and glowing colors – appears to be out to restore the nuances to his life, to flesh out the portrait with details. She may be closer to the truth, but the story isn’t as juicy.

Debunked story

A case in point is the story of Duveen “courting” financier Andrew Mellon, who was treasury secretary to three successive U.S. presidents (Harding, Coolidge and Hoover) from 1921 to 1932. The reclusive and introverted Mellon was known to be an art collector, through a rival dealer. Duveen spared no effort to meet Mellon. He sometimes bought a ticket to sail on the same transatlantic ship as Mellon and bribed the headwaiter to seat him at Mellon’s table. However, Mellon insisted on eating alone, in his cabin. Finally, in 1921, Mellon took a room on the third floor of Claridges Hotel in London and Duveen, who usually stayed on the fourth floor, rented a room on the second floor. Mellon’s valet, who was a friend of Duveen’s valet, informed him that Mellon was about to go out for a walk (money also probably changed hands). When the elevator carrying Mellon stopped at the second floor, Duveen entered, on his way to a walk, too, as it happened. In the cartoonist Edward Sorel’s rendition of the meeting, a large cat in a luxurious suit enters an elevator and meets a frightened bird (Mellon). Duveen proposed that they walk to the National Gallery, where he gave the financier a guided tour of the institution’s finest paintings.

Secrest, who went through the Duveen archives at the Getty Institute, acknowledges that this is a fine story, but proceeds to debunk it on the basis of the documentation. It turns out that Duveen and Mellon actually met eight years earlier, in 1913. The archive is filled with reports about the movements of Mellon (and of other collectors), as well as his hobbies, meetings and art purchases. Wherever Mellon went, Duveen was there slightly ahead of him. The contents of Mellon’s home wastepaper basket reached Duveen before Mellon arrived at his offices at the Treasury Department. Duveen paid an army of waiters, butlers and elevator boys in the U.S. and Europe, in private homes and in hotels, to obtain information.

One story that Secrest does confirm is that Duveen leased the apartment beneath Mellon’s Washington residence, furnished it with some of the finest pieces from his collections – tapestries, art objects, paintings – brought in a butler to live there and gave Mellon the key to the apartment. The butler reported to Duveen that Mellon visited the place, sometimes in his housecoat and slippers. He also began to give receptions there. On one occasion, when Mellon and Duveen met in the apartment and Duveen extravagantly praised a Van Dyke, saying he had never seen such a magnificent painting, the usually taciturn Mellon responded by saying, “Lord Duveen, my pictures never look so marvelous as when you are here.” Mellon eventually bought the entire contents of the apartment (Secrest corrects Behrman’s remark that he may have left behind a few spoons).

In this period, around 1936, the ties between Duveen and Mellon were close and meaningful (the story of their relationship is only an example of the ties that Duveen forged with all his clients). The friendship was forged during a number of severe tests. For example, Duveen showed an interest in purchasing artwork from the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was then called). The Soviet revolution needed hard cash. But neither Duveen nor other collectors could cope with the Russian bureaucracy. One person who did succeed – despite a U.S. government decision to restrict commerce with the Soviet Union – was Andrew Mellon, who purchased 25 pieces of art to enhance his collection.

That story came out after Mellon was no longer treasury secretary, when the U.S. government took him to court for tax evasion; one of the methods he was charged with using was the establishment of funds through which he purchased works of art. It also turned out that Mellon had had dealings with the Soviet Union while serving in the government. Duveen, who was always eager to appear in court (usually as the defendant in suits by owners of paintings whose value was lowered by a disparaging remark of Duveen’s; he generally won), appeared as a witness for the defense. He revealed Mellon’s plan (of which Mellon himself was as yet unaware) to donate all his magnificent collections (Duveen upgraded their value and collected his profit in parallel) as the core of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the construction of which he would also underwrite. Mellon was acquitted (he died before the court delivered its verdict), but the gallery was established – thanks to his donations.

Indefatigable self-promoter

Because of Duveen, others of his major buyers – Henry Clay Frick, Huntington, Joseph Widener, Samuel Kress and others – would also donate their collections to American public museums. From this point of view, even if there were sides in his dynamic character and in his uninhibited behavior that are subject to ethical criticism, it can be said with full confidence that he created the art collections in American museums almost single-handedly.

Duveen was an indefatigable self-promoter. He loved publicity and enjoyed seeing his name in the papers after setting a record price for the sale of this or another painting. But just as he sold respect and reputation to the wealthiest people in America, he also craved them for himself. He was knighted at a relatively early age, as was his father before him, and took pleasure in being on the board of trustees of the National Gallery of England. He saw nothing amiss with proposing to the gallery, in his capacity as an art dealer, that it purchase works in his possession. With naivete (whether feigned or not), he claimed he was losing on the transaction and that if he were to sell the panels in question to another buyer, the National Gallery would afterward purchase them at a higher price. Thus, despite his friendship with the royal family and with the prime minister at the time, Ramsay MacDonald, and despite even his esteem for Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his “peace in our time” promise, Duveen was not elected to another term on the board of trustees. However, he donated funds to establish a wing of the National Gallery in his name, as he did at the Tate, and in 1933, when he was made a peer, he chose the title Baron Duveen of Millbank, the area of London in which the Tate is located. He gave funds for the construction of a wing in the British Museum to install the Elgin marbles, but ensured that they would be cleaned and renovated to make them look “like new.”

Throughout his life Duveen fought to be in sole charge of the business. He bought out his father and then his uncle and all his brothers, a few of whom remained in the business as salaried employees. When one of them wanted to open an independent art dealership, Duveen forbade him to use the family name. He wanted his only child, a daughter, to succeed him, but she did not show any interest in art. In the last five years of his life, he suffered from cancer, and many of his activities in this period (his public philanthropy, his readiness to accept out-of-court settlements even in cases where it was clear he would win) stemmed from his feeling that his end – and the end of his empire – was fast approaching. Although Duveen lived on credit, on his death he had $15 million in the bank and $10 million in merchandise.

Who painted it?

It is this period that Gray’s play addresses. It is set in Berenson’s villa, I Tatti, in 1937. Duveen was gifted with a good eye for art and he was expert in English painting. (He was capable of declaring that a particular painting was not the work of the 18th-century portrait painter George Romney, drive its price down and then win the ensuing court case and prove he was right.) However, in the realm of Italian painting – the Old Masters – he needed guidance. Hence the relationship with Berenson (1865-1959), which endowed him with the reputation of being an authority. For a lengthy period Berenson undertook to “attribute” paintings exclusively for Duveen (and to collect a percentage of the sales profit). However, Berenson was concerned about the future of his villa, his collections and the library he established, and he also tended to consult with competitors, sometimes to make Duveen raise his fee. And both of them knew that a word from Berenson could cost millions.

Gray’s drama is centered around one painting, “The Adoration of the Shepherds.” There is no dispute over its artistic worth, but the central question is who painted it. It was clearly a product of the studio of the Venetian painter Giorgione (1476/8-1510), one of whose students was Titian (1480/5-1576). Giorgione died young and few pictures are securely attributed to him. Titian lived past the age of 90 and left a large number of works. At the time the custom was for the teacher to begin a painting and for the student to finish it. The artist’s name was important, of course, but the gap between the time that had gone by and the rarity of the artist’s works on the market was not yet so large. In other words, Duveen purchased the nativity scene from Baron Allendale as a painting by Giorgione and wanted to sell it as such to Andrew Mellon for millions of dollars. However, Berenson, who saw the painting 35 years earlier, insisted that it was a Titian, thus lowering its price to the hundreds of thousands; as a Titian it was of no interest to Mellon.

In the play, Duveen arrives at Berenson’s villa to try to get him to change his opinion, or at least not to state publicly that he attributes the work to Titian. Duveen – and this is a historical fact – brings the original work with him in a suitcase so that Berenson can have another look at it. But for reasons that are apparently more personal than professional (Fowles conjectures that Baron Allendale threw Berenson out of his house when the critic dared to doubt the authenticity of his Giorgione), Berenson – who in the past had been willing to change or blur his opinion if it meant a painting would fetch a higher price – insists that the work is a Titian. Nothing, not even the dying Duveen’s request, will make him change his mind. The rift between the two (Berenson survived the war in hiding and ultimately left the villa and its artworks to his alma mater, Harvard) was final.

Secrest returns time and again to the question that bothered many: Did Duveen deliberately and knowingly lie in order to boost prices? Her conclusion is that he did not. It’s possible that as a natural-born salesman he tended to exaggerate things and to ignore doubts. Gray offers a more complex picture of the subject. The play begins with Berenson declaring that Mussolini will soon emulate Hitler – brown shirts instead of black, a different form of salute – and saying: “But which is which? And does it matter?” Throughout the play all the characters get confused as to whether attribution of the painting should be changed from Giorgione to Titian, or vice versa. What difference does it make, in the last analysis? The price, yes. But the value? And what is the difference between Berenson and Duveen? Both of them are dealers in value for price. And what is the difference between Mellon and Frick, who bought what Duveen sold them because they trusted him and trusted his prices, and Kress, who likes to bargain for the sale of bargaining and thinks that if he buys three pictures he should get a discount?

In the end, Gray, through Berenson, focuses on the painting itself. Berenson, who maintains that he has a “eyes that can see, a brain that can think and a memory that can connect,” but denies strenuously that he has a “soul” (which Duveen, according to Gray, sells to the wealthy Americans in the form of art), notices – and directs the audience’s attention to the fact that the faces of the shepherds in the picture cannot be seen, nor are the differences between them very great. Their unseen gaze focuses the viewer’s gaze on the main figures, Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus. Extrapolating, this is also the situation with Berenson and Duveen: They focus the viewer’s attention on the main thing, on what will remain, on what truly matters – art, which will survive all the vicissitudes of time and all the attributions to this school or another.

Duveen died before the world in which he operated and to which he added so much life (in Berenson’s description) collapsed, and before art treasures still remaining in Europe were looted by the Nazis or the Russians. Possibly he was a product of his time. He fomented a change in the price of artwork and in the American art world. It is possible, though, that in today’s world, that of conglomerates and computers, and without transatlantic ships and a sense of style, he would be out of place. But in the final analysis, what does it matter?

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