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Duveen: A Life in Art

by Meryle Secrest
544 pages; 85 black and white illustrations
Dimensions: 9.7 x 6.6 x 1.6 in
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, September 2004
ISBN: 0-375-41042-2
Hardcover, $35.00

It took "pleurisy with effusion and arteriosclerosis" -- and a controversy over barbaric methods in cleaning the Elgin Marbles -- to kill the ambition of Joseph Duveen (1869-1939), an American art dealer and the subject of Meryle Secrest's Duveen: A Life in Art. The celebrated dealer was reading his last round of the London Times, Daily Telegraph and Financial Times before suffering a cerebral hemorrhage on Empire Day, May 25, 1939 at the Claridge Hotel in London. "The most vital, life-enhancing, energizer," not to mention braggart and swindler, ever involved in the early twentieth century art scene, Duveen convinced American millionaires of the likes of Mellon, Samuel H. Kress, Morgan and Frick to buy masterpieces by Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Vermeer, Titian, Watteau -- to name only a few. Many of these paintings would end up in the National Gallery, the Fogg Museum at Harvard, and the Tate in London.

Reading Duveen: A Life in Art, a new biography by Meryle Secrest, is to immerse oneself in Duveen's chase for masterpieces and ambition in the 1920s and 30s, and to enter the perfectly enticing world of buying and selling masterworks such as The Adoration of the Shepherds by Giorgione. Duveen bought at the highest price and sold even higher, and employed an elaborate cast of characters in a spy-like network to intrude into the life of the millionaire who was his next victim. He was the master of making others perceive these masterpieces as if they had been blind before -- especially if he was standing alongside them. They never had a chance to see if they were buying forgeries, or copies 'attributed to the artist' and not by the artist himself.

Duveen's manic energy to beat rival art dealers is both wickedly humorous and humorously wicked. They mysteriously died, or were literally sunk crossing the Atlantic. Such was the case of Edgar Gorer, who "claimed that earlier in the year he had tried to sell Frick a valuable Chinese vase from the K'ang-hsi period, but that Joe Duveen told Frick and his wife it was a modern copy. The dealer, Duveen claimed, had been hoodwinked." The way to dispose of a rival in the Duveen manner was to say he was selling a "modern copy," in other words, a fake. Hoodwinked is a polite way of saying something else as well. Gorer, according to the front page of the May 7, 1915 New York Times edition, was suing Duveen for $575,000. That was the day Gorer was crossing the Atlantic on the Lusitania. Perhaps one can't attribute a German U-Boat's torpedo to Duveen, but he was certainly lucky. Edgar Gorer and the Lusitania sank to the bottom of the Atlantic. The lawsuit was dropped.


The newly knighted Sir Joseph and
Lady Duveen in 1919.
Photo and caption from
Duveen: A Life in Art

Secrest paints a portrait of Duveen as a confident raconteur and expert in Old Masters, a man who lived for the chase and the confrontation in courtrooms, and the oldest of fifteen children growing up in Hull, England -- the blessed one. But seldom do we ever know what he was thinking at any given time in his life. If there were long letters of personal correspondence, they pertained only to the selling and buying of Old Masters, or the condition of paintings and whether or not they could be restored or mended properly. He is quoted at length by Secrest on why the average Englishman needed an original painting in his home: "These people have got to be educated, and the best way of educating them is by exhibitions which have catalogues with the prices of the exhbibits marked in plain figures." His father, Joel Duveen, was a Dutch immigrant from a Sephardic family with a long history of buying and selling objects of art and decor. Joel's family developed a business that sold paintings in London and New York, relying on the reliable, ever watchful Uncle Henry to run the Duveen end of business in new York. They were never quoted passionately on anything but art.

At times, Duveen: A Life in Art reads like a film noir, with spies looking through wastebaskets -- here, those of Andrew Mellon, Secretary of Treasury and an art collector, for his doodled desires and wants. Before Mellon had reached home the contents of his wastebasket had been relayed to Duveen via cables in a coded language, as if they were state secrets. Still, there are omissions. Secrest has combed biographies, articles in the Times, and notes, but still never gets the man. Who read the contents of Duveen's own wastebasket? Was there anything in there? We are never given secrets in Secrest's life on Duveen, perhaps because there aren't any. He may have pondered one canvas over another as being his favorite, but whether it was Blue Boy or one of the many Rembrandt canvases (even a Rembrandt that was never painted by the master), we will never know for sure. You don't pour your heart out in a New York Times item, but you do authenticate or denounce paintings in theatrical asides.

In this case, it was the New York World that reported on Duveen commenting that the painting which Andree Hahn, a lady of obscure origins from Kansas, claimed to be a da Vinci was, rather, a fake. This became the basis of a ten-year-long art trial, one of the most celebrated of the 20th century. Many theories abound regarding Duveen's offhand statement printed in the New York World. Bernard Berenson (known as B.B.) was an Italian expert who was paid by Duveen to determine such matters of authentication; and he said that the painting was done by one of da Vinci's pupils, Boltraffio. Hahn sought damages of $500,000 from Duveen, because he had soured a possible sale of that painting by Hahn to a gentleman in Kansas. How the painting journeyed to Kansas sounds like a Marx Brothers script, the painting "packed in a basket of washing and carried by a Frenchwoman, Mlle. Massot, through the French lines and into Belgium; to Brussels and Antwerp and on the steamer Finland of the Red Star Line to new York." And that was in 1919, after World War I was over, but imagine Groucho Marx as the instigator of such a long, unnecessary adventure. At times Hahn admitted she was the niece of the former owner, the Marquis Chambure of Brittany, and other times, as if being tickled by Groucho, that she was the daughter of the Marquis de Lardoux, a wealthy Breton nobleman. Later, she confessed to the Kansas Star that "the painting had originally been given by General Tournon to his adopted daughter, Madame Antoine Vincent. Andree Hahn asserted that from her it went to the Comtesse de Pontbriand, her aunt. She herself had been given the painting jointly with her closest friend and relative, Mlle Louise de Montaur. Maurice de Montaur, heir to the Chambure family, subsequently declared that he knew nothing about an Andree Hahn and that she was in no way connected with his family."

Duveen must have been smiling at this news, and there was more to follow. One of Hahn's star witnesses and experts George Demott died in a hunting accident. And then there was Duveen's deft handling of questions in court. Holding a black and white Louvre photocopy of the painting, he controlled every moment. "'You said,' Miller read, 'her eyes are leaden and lifeless; may I ask you if both eyes in this painting, in your judgment, are equally leaden and lifeless?' 'The left eye has a little life,' said Sir Joseph. 'How about the right eye?' 'It's dead,' he said sadly. 'Dead,' he said again. He shook his head morosely over the painting: 'Very dead.'"


The Duveens at home in their great New York salon
painted by Duveen's favorite artist, Sir John Lavery.
The two dogs may be props.
Photo and caption from
Duveen: A Life in Art

Even Berenson was memorable in court. When asked why he couldn't remember if the painting was on canvas or wood, if he had seen it a thousand times, Berenson reflected a moment and answered, "I don't know." "What, you claim to have studied it so much, and you can't answer a simple question?" Berenson retorted, "It's as if you asked me on what kind of paper Shakespeare wrote his immortal sonnets."

Duveen's only vice was tobacco and, especially fond of Havana cigars, he would suffer throat cancer later in life. He staged his photographs, and cigarettes were never seen in his hands. He managed everything, including how to act before other people. He never ate red meat, drank little wine and no liquor, and ate sparingly, often satisfied with cold chicken and fruit at lunch and plover eggs and a bird for dinner. He was dressed to perfection in a silk shirt and starched white cuffs, on which he penciled notes, and wore a tailored suit, of course. His love affair for art was only matched by his nicotine addiction.

It seems there could be more here. But Secrest never finds it. Newspapers made him a humor in the Hahn case, and he will forever be linked to the putative da Vinci painting. Testimony dragged on for three weeks and we can follow it in newspaper-like accounts, with a sort of Marx Brothers humor in the situation at times. I won't give away the ending to this comedy, but there's no question that Duveen was lucky and comfortable, planting spies in houses of millionaires, if it meant he could sell another painting or trash someone's reputation. He would never have drowned on the Lusitania; it took a lifelong addiction like smoking to kill him. We never get the whole man here, only a shadow of himself flitting through the pages of a biography: a quip, an aside quoted in newspapers, and, of course, how much he paid to buy a painting -- and what he sold it for.

--Russell Thorburn

Russell Thorburn teaches poetry in Upper Peninsula schools of Michigan. His book of poetry, Approximate Desire, was published by New Issues Poetry Press (1999). He was awarded an NEA that same year. His latest book of poetry, Damaged Radiance, has been inspired by classic films such as "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold."

Editorial Note: All quotes, unless otherwise identified, are from the reviewed book itself.

Duveen: A Life in Art, and other books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews, may be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link.



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