Sir Joseph Joel Duveen 8 May — 9 November was an art dealer and benefactor of art galleries. Born in the Netherlands, he and his brother Henry J. Duveen founded in Britain the firm of Duveen Brothers. Joseph left Meppel in and settled in Hull , starting as a general dealer. He possessed a good knowledge of Nanking porcelain, then coming into fashion; cargo loads of this had been brought to Holland by the early Dutch traders with China. He purchased large quantities, which he shipped it to Hull, and found a ready market in London.
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When Joseph Duveen, the most spectacular art dealer of all time, travelled from one to another of his three galleries, in Paris, New York, and London, his business, including a certain amount of his stock in trade, travelled with him. His business was highly personal, and during his absence his establishments dozed.
They jumped to attention only upon the kinetic arrival of the Master. Early in life, Duveen—who became Lord Duveen of Millbank before he died in , at the age of sixty-nine—noticed that Europe had plenty of art and America had plenty of money, and his entire astonishing career was the product of that simple observation.
Beginning in , when he was seventeen, he was perpetually journeying between Europe, where he stocked up, and America, where he sold. In later years, his annual itinerary was relatively fixed: At the end of May, he would leave New York for London, where he spent June and July; then he would go to Paris for a week or two; from there he would go to Vittel, a health resort in the Vosges Mountains, where he took a three-week cure; from Vittel he would return to Paris for another fortnight; after that, he would go back to London; sometime in September, he would set sail for New York, where he stayed through the winter and early spring.
Occasionally, Duveen departed from his routine to help out a valuable customer. If, say, he was in Paris and Andrew Mellon or Jules Bache was coming there, he would considerately remain a bit longer than usual, to assist Mellon or Bache with his education in art. To his major pupils, Duveen extended extracurricular courtesies. He permitted Bache to store supplies of his favorite cigars in the vaults of the Duveen establishments in London and Paris. While Bache was waiting for the cigars to appear, Boggis showed him a Van Dyck and told him Duveen had earmarked it for him.
Bache was so entranced with the picture that he bought it on the spot and almost forgot about the cigars; he finally went off to the train with both. There was no charge for storing the cigars, but the Van Dyck cost him two hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars. Probably never before had a merchant brought to such exquisite perfection the large-minded art of casting bread upon the waters. He also wangled hotel accommodations and passage on sold-out ships. He got his clients houses, or he provided architects to build them houses, and then saw to it that the architects planned the interiors with wall space that demanded plenty of pictures.
He even selected brides or bridegrooms for some of his clients, and presided over the weddings with avuncular benevolence. These selections had to meet the same refined standard that governed his choice of houses for his clients—a potential receptivity to expensive art.
On immediate issues, Duveen was not a patient man. With choleric imperialism, he felt that the world must stop while he got what he wanted.
He had a convulsive drive, a boundless and explosive fervor, especially for a picture he had just bought, and a reckless contempt for works of art handled by rival dealers. He asked Duveen to look at it. Similarly, in New York, a millionaire collector who was so undisciplined that he was thinking of buying a sixteenth-century Italian painting from another dealer asked Duveen to his mansion on Fifth Avenue to look at it.
It was one of the crosses Duveen had to bear that the temperaments of the men he dealt with in this country were the direct opposite of his own. Those other emperors, the emperors of oil and steel, of department stores and railroads and newspapers, of stocks and bonds, of utilities and banking houses, had trained themselves to talk slowly, pausing lengthily before each word and especially before each verb, in order to keep themselves from sliding over into the abyss of commitment.
For a man like Duveen, who was congenitally unable to keep quiet, the necessity of dealing constantly with cryptic men like the elder J. Morgan and Henry Clay Frick and Mellon was ulcerating. He would read a letter from one of his important clients twenty times, pondering each evasively phrased sentence.
Some have said that Duveen hired him simply because his name was Morgan. In any case, one of H. The day before a scheduled interview with any of his important clients, Duveen would go to bed to map out the strategic possibilities. But before such an interview with Mellon, Duveen would, in addition to going to bed, rehearse with Morgan.
Mellon was particularly hard to deal with, because he was supremely inscrutable. There were never any doubts in his own mind. Each picture he had to sell, each tapestry, each piece of sculpture was the greatest since the last one and until the next one.
How could these men dawdle, thwart their itch to own these magnificent works, because of a mere matter of price? Widener or Benjamin Altman or Samuel H. Kress, it became a Widener or an Altman or a Kress, but until then it was a Duveen. Still, Duveen learned to bear this cross, and even to manipulate it a bit. While coping with their doubts, he solidified his own convictions, and then charged them extra for the time and trouble he had taken doing it.
Making his clients conscious that whereas he had unique access to great art, his outlets for it were multiple, he watched their doubts about the prices of the art evolving into more acute doubts about whether he would let them buy it. From other sources he got reports on any major collections being offered for sale, and photographs of their treasures.
These reports might include the gossip of servants who had overheard the master saying to an important art dealer, as they savored the bouquet of an after-dinner brandy, that he might—in certain circumstances, he just might consider parting with the lovely titled Gainsborough lady smiling graciously down at them from over a mantel.
Once Duveen had such a clue, he hastened to telescope the circumstances in which the Gainsborough-owner just might. Often the dealer who had enjoyed the brandy did not find himself in a position to enjoy the emolument that went with handling the Gainsborough. In negotiating with the heads of noble families, Duveen usually won hands down over other dealers; the brashness and impetuosity of his attack simply bowled the dukes and barons over.
Will pay the biggest price you ever saw! They were familiar with it from their extensive experience in buying and selling horses. In Paris, Duveen often got frantic letters from his comptroller in New York imploring him to stop buying. Duveen, who was never as elated by a sale as he was by a purchase, usually laid out over a million dollars on his annual trip abroad, and occasionally three or four times that sum. These immoderate disbursals of money paralleled the self-indulgence of Morgan.
In July, , when art dealers all over the world were gasping for money, he stupefied them by paying four and a half million dollars for the Gustave Dreyfus Collection. But I confess I am quite in the dark about his financing.
Adherence to this principle required finesse, sometimes even lack of finesse. A titled Englishwoman had a family portrait to sell. Duveen asked her what she wanted for it. Meekly, she mentioned eighteen thousand pounds. Duveen was indignant. Ridiculous, my dear lady! A kind of haggle in reverse ensued. Finally, the owner asked him what he thought the picture was worth. Duveen had enormous respect for the prices he set on the objects he bought and sold.
Often his clients tried, in various ways, to maneuver him into a position where he might relax his high standards, but he nearly always managed to keep them inviolate. There was an instance of this kind of maneuvering in , which concerned three busts from the Dreyfus Collection—a Verrocchio, a Donatello, and a Desiderio da Settignano.
Duveen offered this trio to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Rockefeller felt that the price was rather high. Duveen, on the other hand, felt that, considering the quality of the busts, he was practically giving them away. During that time, Duveen hoped, the attraction the chary host felt for his visitors would ripen into an emotion that was more intense. He had some tapestries for which he had paid a quarter of a million dollars. He proposed to send Duveen these tapestries, so that he could have a chance to become fond of them , and to buy the busts for a million dollars, throwing the tapestries in as lagniappe.
As the depression was still on and most people were feeling the effects of it, Rockefeller thought, he said, that Duveen might welcome the million in cash. This letter threw Duveen into a flurry. It bothered him more than most letters he got from clients. His legal adviser told him that the counter-offer, unless immediately repudiated, might result in a cancellation of the option.
Duveen sat down and wrote a letter himself. Moreover, he stated, he was not in the stock market, and therefore not in the least affected by the depression. He let fall a few phrases of sympathy for those who were; by his air of surprised incredulity at the existence of people who felt the depression, Duveen managed to convey the suggestion that if Rockefeller was in temporary financial difficulty, he, Duveen, was ready to come to his assistance.
Having dispatched the letter, Duveen, with his customary optimism, prophesied to his associates that Rockefeller would eventually buy the busts at his price. At Christmastime, with a week or so of the option still to go, Rockefeller told Duveen that his final decision was not to buy the busts, and asked Duveen to take them back. For Rockefeller, this occurred on the day before the option expired. On the thirty-first of December, at the eleventh hour, he informed Duveen that he was buying the busts at a million and a half.
On his visits to Paris, Duveen often gazed admiringly at the building occupied by the Ministry of Marine, a beautiful production of the illustrious Jacques-Ange Gabriel, court architect to Louis XV.
The Ministry consists of a tremendous central edifice, flanked by great wings. With his immense energy and drive, he set about materializing this snip at once. Even the stone was French-imported from quarries near St. Quentin and Chassignelles. The total cost was a million dollars, but this was not too much for an establishment that was to house the Duveen treasures.
The eight or ten big clients who would enter the building—the handful of men with whom Duveen did the major part of his business—to look at the garnered possessions of kings and emperors and high ecclesiastics were rulers, too, and must be provided with an environment that would tend to make them conscious of their right to inherit these possessions. In Paris, Duveen always stayed at the Ritz.
A permanent guest at this hotel, with whom Duveen had many encounters over the years, was Calouste S. Gulbenkian, the Armenian oil Croesus.
Of all his achievements, perhaps the most chic is that he several times outmaneuvered Duveen. One day, happening upon Duveen in one of the Ritz elevators, Gulbenkian told him that he knew of three fine English pictures for sale—a Reynolds, a Lawrence, and a Gainsborough. The owner wanted to sell them in a lot. Gulbenkian proposed that Duveen buy them and give him, as a reward for his tip, an option on any one of the three, with this proviso: Duveen was to put his own prices on them before Gulbenkian made his choice known, but the total price was not to exceed what Duveen had paid.
Duveen bought the pictures and went about setting the individual prices. As he wanted from Gulbenkian a sum that would become the richest man in Europe, he pondered deeply before deciding which picture he thought Gulbenkian would choose. He put a Duveen price on the Lawrence, and therefore had to set reasonable figures for the two others.
Joseph Duveen: 4 Lessons from History’s Best Art Dealer
When Joseph Duveen, the most spectacular art dealer of all time, travelled from one to another of his three galleries, in Paris, New York, and London, his business, including a certain amount of his stock in trade, travelled with him. His business was highly personal, and during his absence his establishments dozed. They jumped to attention only upon the kinetic arrival of the Master. Early in life, Duveen—who became Lord Duveen of Millbank before he died in , at the age of sixty-nine—noticed that Europe had plenty of art and America had plenty of money, and his entire astonishing career was the product of that simple observation.
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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. According to S. 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.