This Day in Jewish History

1869: An Art Dealer Who Catered to Rich U.S. Businessmen Is Born

In his day, Joseph Duveen was almost as well known as some of his clients, people with names like Morgan, Mellon and Frick.

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October 14, 1869, is the birthdate of Joseph Duveen, the head of a small but lucrative art-gallery empire who administered the sale of countless art treasures from Europe to some of America’s wealthiest businessmen. So prodigious were Duveen’s promotional skills, and so far was he willing to go to make a sale, that in his day he was almost as well known as some of his clients, people with names like Morgan, Mellon and Frick.

Joseph Duveen was born in Hull, England, the oldest of the 15 children of Sir Joseph Joel Duveen and his wife, Rosetta. Joseph Joel and his brother Henry had come to the United Kingdom from Meppel, the Netherlands, and together launched a business for the trade of antiques and other objects. They began by selling the Delftware pottery that had been collected by their mother back in Meppel, but quickly branched out into other areas. By 1870, the Duveen Brothers had opened galleries in both London and New York.

Joseph Duveen’s formal education ended at age 17, the year his father sent him to New York for an apprenticeship of several months at his Uncle Henry’s shop in Maiden Lane. According to S.N. Behrman’s 1951 biography of Duveen, during his short stay in New York, the teenager convinced his uncle to move his showroom from Lower Manhattan to Fifth Avenue and 56th St.

Later, back in London, according to Behrman, at the family’s showroom on Oxford Street, Joe (as he was called by family and friends) aided his father, Joseph Joel, in the sale of a number of screens to Sir Edward Guinness, the Dublin brewer, and his wife. For Joe, this was a formative experience, because it helped him understand that for families like Guinness, the real money was being invested in buying art at the Bond Street galleries. It was then he resolved to move the business into the sale of Old Masters and other high-priced artwork.

He also began his own education in art history, by affiliating himself with well-known scholars. Duveen’s most lucrative, and controversial, relationship of this type was with Bernard Berenson, at the time the world’s most prominent art historian. Berenson, a Lithuanian-born Jew, had earlier been the art adviser to Isabel Stewart Gardner, and had spent $3 million of her money (in pre-1900 terms) in purchasing the works to fill her Boston mansion.

Berenson became the art expert that Duveen would come to for the authentification of works he was interested in purchasing. In a 1986 book, Colin Simpson charged that Berenson had not only worked as an independent expert hired by Duveen, but that he was on the Duveen Bros. payroll. Rachel Cohen, author of a forthcoming book about Berenson, suggested in a recent New Yorker article that there’s little evidence that Berenson falsified his appraisals, but the fact that he had a contract with Duveen that guaranteed him a percentage of sales he assisted with compromised his reputation.

Cohen quotes a letter Berenson wrote to his lawyer explaining how he had to live grandly if people were to turn to him for expert advice, and this required a significant income. In justifying his claims of most of his expenses as business-related, Berenson explained that, “almost all I spend is calculated, & more than calculated, imperatively demanded if I am to make an income. I do not earn money by trade. I earn it by enjoying such authority & prestige that people will not buy expensive Italian pictures without my approval.”

A da Vinci duel

In 1920, a Kansas couple, Harry and Andree Hahn, filed a $500,000 lawsuit filed against Duveen, claiming that he had ruined their chances of selling a painting, “La Belle Ferroniere,” by Leonardo da Vinci. Duveen had not seen the work, another, identical version of which hung in the Louvre, but when called by a newspaper reporter, he said that the Hahns’ work was clearly a copy. The Hahns sued, saying that if Duveen had not made his defamatory remark, they would have succeeded in selling their painting to the Kansas City Art Institute.

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The legal proceedings went on for nine years, and the trial that finally took place – in which Berenson offered his opinion that the Louvre painting was a Leonardo, but that the Kansas City work “failed to display the energy and vitality of a Da Vinci” -- ended with a hung jury. After the judge ordered a retrial, the two sides decided to settle, and Duveen paid the Hahns $60,000.  But Berenson, who initially had been very reluctant to provide an opinion for Duveen, came out looking compromised in the art world. The unseemly relationship of the two satisfied the need of many in that world to see the pair of Jews, the merchant and the scholar, as overly concerned with money.

Joseph Duveen, who was named the Baron of Millbank in 1933, was an ebullient and sharply perceptive man who had a genius of forging friendships with wealthy collectors. He flattered them, helped them decorate their homes, and he shrewdly pumped their servants and drivers for useful information. He also convinced many of his clients to donate their art to major museums, thus enhancing and perpetuating their own names. (The art historian Kenneth Clark once said of Duveen that, “when he was present everyone behaved as if they had had a couple of drinks.”) The galleries that Duveen’s clients established – the Frick Collection in New York, the Mellon and Kress collections at the National Gallery, in Washington, D.C., among others – remain some of the great repositories of classical art to this day.

Duveen himself built a gallery at the British Museum for the exhibition of the Elgin Marbles, and also a new wing at the Tate Gallery. In recent years, the restoration work his professional staff did on the marble sculptures from the Parthenon has come in for significant criticism, as have similar “improvements” he had applied to many Old Masters paintings while they were in his possession.

Lord Duveen died on May 25, 1939. Following his death, his nephew Armand Lowengard took over as co-director of the company. But the firm had to vacate its Paris gallery after the German occupation, and soon after closed its London branch. In 1964, the dealer, by then based solely in New York, was sold to Norton Simon.       

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