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Duveen the Impresario

Joseph Duveen, the grandest of all the fine-arts dealers, enjoyed a career that he could probably not have had at any other time in history. Born in 1869, he came to maturity with the beginning of the Twentieth Century; he died on the eve of World War II, in 1939. It was during this time that a dozen or so very rich Americans traded mountains of cash for masterpieces of European art. Such a transfer could not occur today; there are laws everywhere that protect national patrimony from foreign plunder. Such masterpieces as remained behind, moreover, have wound up, like their American cousins, in great museums. Great museums, if they existed at all, were pale intimations of their present selves when Duveen got to work. Indeed, his clients would contribute the backbones of at least three major American museums' holdings - the Metropolitan, the Huntingdon, and, housed in a building designed by Duveen's favorite architect, the National Gallery in Washington. So, far from rivaling the museums, Duveen may be said to have created them, however indirectly. The works that passed through his hands make up an extraordinary catalogue; it is difficult not to see him as a grinning pirate, swimming in jewels and plate. A grinning pirate with little taste for possession, that is. Duveen kept only what his idea of his stature demanded. The rest he was only too delighted to sell, sometimes two or three times during his fabulous career. His principal ostentation, indeed, was in the prices that he paid for things - always top dollar. Simply by spending a small fortune on a painting, Duveen could make it a masterpiece.

Duveen did not act alone, nor was he self-made. His flamboyant success depended not only upon the business that his father had built up from scratch but also upon the expertise of those siblings and cousins with whom he managed to get along, or perhaps who could bear to deal with Duveen's alpha ego. The London and Paris branches were always humming with intake that would find its way to clients of the Fifth Avenue mansion (which looked not unlike the still-standing Cartier building) in New York. Agents were always busy sounding out the rumors of the art world - who was thinking of selling, who was thinking of competing with Duveen, and so on. Duveen usually worked out in advance who was thinking of buying; it was his practice to sell the pricier wares before he actually owned them. What sounds like a sweet arrangement was clouded by the habit, pervasive among his customers, of taking forever to pay for their purchases. Duveen experienced several close calls, but always avoided shipwreck. He got in trouble with the IRS, and somewhat recklessly involved himself in some unnecessary lawsuits. But he thrived on crisis and bold conduct. Reading about him is great fun.

When Meryle Secrest's biography, Duveen: A Life In Art (Knopf, 2004), appeared last year, it was well-enough received, but always with a complaint to the effect that the author had failed to plumb the depths of her subject's character. While agree that there is something missing from Duveen, I have never encountered a figure so free of depth of character as Joseph Duveen. He clearly regarded his private life - if he regarded it at all - as a matter of banal detail, on the level of choice in toothpaste. He liked his comforts, but was not a slave to them, and would throw them over in a minute for the pursuit of loot. Because, as I say, he felt obliged to maintain a certain standard of living in order to simulate parity with his much richer clients, his first-class hotel and steamship suites give his life an extravagant air, but these suites were part of a larger performance, not the settings for intimacy. Duveen was an impresario who instead of staging operas or pageants was permanently involved in the production of his own career. I don't think that there was an inner life of any interest, to Duveen or to today's readers.

What is missing from Duveen is a clearly established representation of the historical framework in which Duveen operated. Ms Secrest knows her history, certainly, but she dribbles it out as anecdotes and transactions require. There is little sense of overview, of the contingencies that, aligning uniquely, made it possible for one man to ship so much great art across the Atlantic. Because Duveen's life is so entertaining - when it is not, given the roll call of masterpieces, simply breathtaking - Ms Secrest's stinginess with background material is not bothersome, but it does mean that one reaches the end of the book with a certain vacancy. The man was pinned to temporal specifics at every turn, but in Duveen he floats through events, and with a slight insubstantiality that is not corrected by the author's fondness for disregarding chronology. Joseph Duveen was too much a figure of genuine historical importance to fit comfortably within the pages of a "mere" biography.

If you have any taste for high life at all, you will enjoy Duveen. A lot. There are dozens of really good stories here, and I could entertain you by transcribing a few. But I'd rather you got the book and read it for yourself. You will have to be content with one celebrated, martini-dry exchange between Duveen and Andrew Mellon, the Pittsburgh financier and Secretary of the Treasury who all but commissioned the National Gallery, toward the ends of both their lives.

One day, as Duveen was leaving after a visit to Mr. Mellon, he turned at the door of the apartment and looking at the Van Dyck of the Marchesa Balbi, said, "Look at that picture, Mr. Mellon, with the light falling on it. Have you ever seen anything so marvelous!" Mr. Mellon replied drily, "Lord Duveen, my pictures never look so marvelous as when you are here!"

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