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Duveen: A Life in Art
By Meryle Secrest

Alfred Knopf


By Antoine du Rocher

NEW YORK, 14 NOVEMBER 2005óMeryle Secrest's informative biography recounts the life of Joseph Duveen (1869  - 1939). From humble beginnings as the son of a Dutch Jew who peddled old Delft jars to the British in Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool, Duveen's life reached its culmination as Lord Duveen of Millbank, one of the most influential art dealers on two continents.

Fortunately, however, the book is much more than a tale of the shameless arrivisme and social contortions of an outsider determined to be accepted by the British upper class. During his lifetime Joseph Duveen, and the family business of Duveen Brothers, facilitated the almost systematic fine and decorative art acquisitions of the rich and powerful in America in the early part of the twentieth century. The Duveens served as intermediaries between many important European old master paintings and French furniture collections and many wealthy self-made Americans. Tracing the Duveens' history provides a look into the lives of the collectors they serve and the collections they acquired.

There is enough  to entertain the most jaded voyeur:  family intrigue and litigation, social climbing, anti-semitic disdain  from  the European and Anglo-american upper classes, business success, and, of course, scandal, including Duveen's irredeemably foolish and barbaric overcleaning of the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum towards the end of his life in the late 1930s. Small wonder the Greeks want the Parthenon sculptures returned.

The book's more serious value, however, lies in the background narrative of the sometimes thorny provenance of great masterpieces, and the eventual acquisition of those works by such self-made Americans as J.P. Morgan, Samuel H. Kress, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon, Henry Edwards Huntington and others.

Along the way, one learns a great deal about the confidential and sometimes seamy underground of art and antique dealers, fakes and forgeries, misattributions, double-dealings and worse. In addition, having already written a biography of Bernard Berenson, Meryle Secrest brings special insight to the ambivalent and long business association that the dealer-expert of Italian Renaissance painting had with Joseph Duveen. The partial list of the paintings, sculptures and objects  that passed through Duveen Brothers and their attributions at the time of sale follows Secrest's notes to the biography and is a useful reference for those with an interest in art scholarship.  

In short, for anyone who wants to grasp the true significance of the discreet wall labels next to their favourite European paintings in some of America's most prestigious public collections, Secrest's book is well worth the read.

Duveen : A Life in Art
by Meryle Secrest
Hardcover: 544 pages
Alfred Knopf (September 2004)
ISBN: 0375410422


Related: Au temps de Marcel Proust: F. G. Seligmann's Private Collection at the Carnavalet Museum


Antoine du Rocher is managing editor of

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