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
Hardcover: 544 pages
Alfred Knopf (September 2004)
Related: Au temps
de Marcel Proust: F. G. Seligmann's Private Collection at the Carnavalet
Antoine du Rocher is managing editor of