I’ve always wondered how so much priceless European art from the Renaissance onwards made its way to major American museums. In the engrossing Duveen by SN Behrman, we learn how. The greatest art dealer of all time, Joseph Duveen, courted and cajoled American robber barons into spending millions of dollars on old master paintings, most of which eventually ended up being donated to museums. The story of Duveen is absolutely fascinating, even if you’re not passionate about art.
The talent for collecting and a sense of aesthetics came through Duveen’s Dutch grandmother, a blacksmith’s wife, who started to collect delft pottery in a small way. Having heard that delft was popular amongst the English, she sent one of her sons, Joseph Joel, off to sell her stock. Hence, started the Duveen dynasty of art and antique dealers which spanned the Atlantic and whose customers included the Prince of Wales, King Edward VII, countless British aristocrats and American industrial giants.
It was the grandson, Joseph Duveen, later Lord Duveen, who took art dealing to a whole new level, never seen before or after. His shrewdness as a seller was legendary and often involved buying art at inflated prices only to turn around to a Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Frick or Mellon and selling the object at an ever higher price. The fact that Duveen had bought it was in itself a validation of the price. Duveen understood the fiercely competitive personalities of these men and knew they would do anything to outdo each other. Duveen was brash, entertaining and charming and provided the European sophistication which these self-made men so badly craved.
Duveen’s protégés were rich enough to go anywhere and do anything but didn’t know where to go or what to do or even how to do nothing gracefully.
Duveen died in 1939, just as he had help facilitate a donation of art to the National Gallery in Washington, one of the largest in American history. As with many things in his life, the timing was impeccable. This book was originally published in 1951 but is as fascinating today. If anything, Behrman’s proximity in time makes it feel more alive. There was one thing I missed in this book, though, and that was illustrations of the priceless paintings that made their way through Duveen’s hands. That too, I guess, was a question of money.
If you like Duveen, you might also like The Unfinished Palazzo – Life, Love and Art in Venice.
Duveen by SN Behrman is published by Daunt Books, 236 pages.