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A rogue dealer and old masters

September 19, 2004|Edmund Fawcett | Edmund Fawcett is a contributor to several publications, including the (London) Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian (London) and the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.

Duveen

The Story of the Most Spectacular Art Dealer of All Time

S.N. Behrman, with an introduction by Glenn Lowry

The Little Bookroom: 236 pp., $12.95 paper

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Duveen

A Life in Art

Meryle Secrest

Alfred A. Knopf: 518 pp., $35

*

Without Joseph Duveen, many great American public art collections would be shadows of themselves. The head of a vast network operating from London, Paris and New York, Duveen had a virtual monopoly on the trade in old-master paintings among rich American clients early in the 20th century. He made himself an arbiter of taste, treating moguls such as J. Pierpont Morgan, Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Mellon more as trainees than customers. Born into an Anglo-Dutch family of antique dealers in 1869, he had an eye for values, an aggressive charm and an instinct for the particular insecurities that often come with stupendous wealth.

Throughout his career, Duveen inspired stories of dealerish braggadocio that he did little to discourage. Triumph and disaster were as one for him, so long as both were visibly expensive. He set the highest prices and charged clients a further premium for the privilege of paying those prices. He was seldom out of court; his lawyers grew almost rich enough to afford his paintings. Not that greed was his prime motive. Art, money and social cachet merged for Duveen in a colorful blur, making him an irresistible subject for the kind of teasing but ultimately respectful portrait in which the New Yorker magazine once specialized. S.N. Behrman's "Duveen: The Story of the Most Spectacular Art Dealer of All Time," written originally as a series of New Yorker articles in 1951 and '52, is an evergreen sample.

Witty kiss-offs come at a pace that would have left Cary Grant or William Powell gasping. To a proud collector displaying a Renaissance work bought from a rival, Duveen sighed disapprovingly, "I sniff fresh paint." Asked why his restorers varnished paintings so thickly, he explained that clients liked seeing themselves in their old masters. His wholesale restorations were equally controversial. Challenged on a virtually repainted portrait of a young woman he was offering as 16th century, he told a wealthy widow, "If you were as old as she was, you would need restoring."

Diverting as they are, such tales risk reducing Duveen to a wisecracking buffoon. An opposite danger, which Behrman does not wholly avoid either, is to make Duveen an all-knowing Jeeves to rich but innocent Bertie Woosters. In truth, the moguls mostly read his game. The California rail magnate Henry Huntington mimicked Duveen's rapturous sales pitches; like his peers, he was simply happy to play. One exception was Henry Ford. Duveen, disobeying his own rule never to cooperate with other dealers, led a five-member team to Ford's home in Dearborn, Mich., to break down the car tycoon's notorious indifference to collecting art. They presented a beautifully illustrated catalog of wares, bound in red leather. "Mother, did you hear that?" Ford turned to his wife. "These gentlemen are going to give me these beautiful books as a present." When they pressed him about buying, however, his eyes hardened and he asked in mock innocence why he would need paintings now that he had such a magnificent picture book.

Besides recounting such amusing, half-believable stories, Behrman also describes Duveen's business. He acquired at least eight large European collections for an estimated $25 million to $30 million, which he sold off from the basement of his Fifth Avenue gallery over decades. As he bought for cash and was usually paid later in stock, friendly bankers were vital. Unused to second-best, he turned to Morgan and Mellon, who took the amicable view that since Duveen's goods were invaluable, his overdraft should be unlimited. Duveen not only siphoned old masters from Europe to the United States, he helped shift art from private to public hands. In 1916, the top rate of American inheritance tax was 15%. By the end of the 1930s it was 77%, though charitable gifts could be offset. Duveen accordingly encouraged clients to treat eventual public donation as a silver-lined necessity, thus helping enrich collections at, among other places, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the National Gallery in Washington.

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