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An Englishman in New York - the art of Lord Duveen
11th June 2024

The Duveen Gallery at Tate Britian

AN ENGLISHMAN IN NEW YORK:  Joseph Duveen – charismatic crook or the world’s greatest art dealer?
Presented by Mark Meredith


Our lecturer Mark Meredith kept us gripped for an hour with the fascinating story of Joseph Duveen who, with his charm and exceptional eye for detail and quality became the greatest patron of arts America had even known.

Joseph Duveen was famous for saying, “Europe has a great deal of art and America has a great deal of money”.  In the 1920s in an era of monopolies, Duveen was an unparalleled salesman, influencing, educating and guiding giants of industry in America such as Getty, Morgan, Rockefeller and Frick to spend a great deal of money on art.  Without Duveen, the 3 most highly revered museums in the USA, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery in Washington would not be what they are today.

Joseph Duveen was from a Jewish family, born in Hull in 1869.  His father and uncle became highly influential art and antique dealers and set up their own company, Duveen Brothers.  They were amongst the first to recognise the American market and gained the trust of the kings of Wall Street.  In 1907 the American arm of the business was handed over to Joseph in New York City.  In 1912 he bought 720 Fifth Avenue turning the mansion into an art gallery, using every room across its five floors to display artworks. Duveen’s attention to detail in how his rooms were decorated and displayed, was all about making a sale. 

 

American industrialists came to his mansion and would see the artwork displayed in room settings that they immediately related to which in turn persuaded them to make the purchase.  Duveen always knew the artworks his clients would buy and, using his charm and knowledge of art, would persuade and encourage his clients towards the purchase of the artworks he wanted them to buy at a price he wanted them to spend.  One of the rooms in his mansion was set up as a waiting room in which he would subtly display artworks that a client may not have specifically come to see but which Duveen would eventually persuade him to buy.  Our lecturer, Mark Meredith, told us stories involving William Randolph Hearst, who was addicted to antiquities, purchased the portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria by Van Dyck from Duveen for $375,000; and how John R. Thompson, industrialist from Chicago was kept waiting for over an hour in the waiting room in Duveen’s mansion with 6 old masters sitting on easels.  By the end of the hour Thompson wanted to buy the 6 paintings but Duveen refused to sell them to him, claiming they were held back for a favourite client.  Thompson would not budge and desperately wanted to have the paintings.  Eventually, Duveen sold them to Thompson for $1 million. 

The basement of 720 Fifth Avenue was full to the brim of artworks.  A vast collection of rejections, that Duveen felt were too ugly or too cheap and which he did not want seen for sale on the art market, creating scarcity amongst the artworks he did want to sell.

Henry Clay Frick, an American industrialist and financier, arrived in New York in 1901. 

 

Twelve years later he was seen as the most inspired art collector in the USA, with the help of Duveen.  He bought a house to display his artworks, which he then bequeathed to the public for their enjoyment – it is now known as the Frick Museum on the upper east side.  Its superb collection of old masters include 11 panels by the French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard.  Frick wanted the panels to be displayed in the finest French styled room possible which, with Duveen’s help, he achieved.

 

Duveen elevated American’s taste in art and many of the artworks that he acquired and sold to American millionaires can now be seen in museums across the USA.  They trusted him and he delivered.

 

Duveen was not an art expert but was he just a money-obsessed man on the make?  He would often tell his clients “an accumulation is never a collection”.  He devoted his life to quality and not quantity and he believed in selling immortality to his clients.   He was a lovable buccaneer and a brilliant salesman.

He died in 1939 worth $39 million, with the majority of his stock in the cellars of his mansion. 

Vicki Cowan

A member of The Arts Society
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