Sir Joseph Joel Duveen

Art dealer and philanthropist Sir Joseph Joel Duveen (1843-1908) was the founding father of Duveen Brothers, a firm that would practically hold the monopoly on sales of Old Masters, antiques and objets de vertu from private collections in Europe to the burgeoning American millionaire market. Important works by Raphael, Rembrandt and Gainsborough now in American museum collections were Duveen acquisitions donated by clients such as J. P. Morgan, Henry Clay Frick, John D. Rockefeller, Paul Mellon, William C. Whitney, William Randolph Hearst and H. E. Huntingdon.

J.J. Duveen and his brother Henry (1855-1918) were Jewish/Dutch immigrants who established an import business in Hull in the 1860s specialising in delftware. The business expanded into furniture, tapestries and objets d’art and was successful enough for J. J. to build a London showroom on Oxford Street next door to The Pantheon in 1879. Uncle Henry had already opened a New York showroom on Fifth Avenue in 1877. According to J.J.’s son Joseph Jr, it was he who prompted his father to move into the Old Master market.

In the late 1880s Edward Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh and England’s richest man, furnished his London residence Kenwood House with Duveen’s stock of antiques and tapestries. According to Joseph Jr, ‘my father was satisfied, my Uncle Henry was satisfied, my brothers were satisfied but I was not’. Joseph Jr had noticed that Guinness was spending significantly more on Old Masters from rival dealer Agnew than he was at Duveen on furniture and tapestries.

Joseph Jr tells a delightful story from the Oxford Street era of how his father would send him out into the mews behind the showroom to question the coachman should a customer arrive incognito. This was how J. J. first flattered Lady Guinness. A network of domestic spies not dissimilar to Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street Boys would give invaluable intelligence to J. J. and Joseph Jr over the years that helped oil the wheel of sales. By 1894, Duveen Brothers moved the business to a prestigious Mayfair showroom on Old Bond Street.

J. J. was a charismatic character and a great showman as his first encounter with J. P. Morgan demonstrates. When summoned to Morgan’s New York home on Madison Avenue, America’s wealthiest banker presented J. J., Uncle Henry and Joseph Jr with five Chinese porcelain vases telling them that three were priceless and two fakes. J. J. examined the pieces, raised his cane and smashed two of the vases. Fortuitously the pieces he destroyed were the fakes and Morgan became one of Duveen Brothers’ most prolific customers. It is a mark of Duveen’s success that he and Uncle Henry patronised Henry Poole & Co, the same tailor as clients such as Morgan, Frick and Hearst.

Uncle Henry first saw Joseph Jr’s potential when the latter persuaded mining, oil and shipping tycoon William C. Whitney to part with $10,000 for a Gobelins tapestry. ‘This boy is a genius’, Uncle Henry declared, adding the caveat ‘but he will drive me crazy’. Admittedly, Joseph Jr was a risk-taker whose daring acquisitions of Old Masters would make him the world’s richest and most revered art dealer. As he said of the art and antiques market in the late 19th century, ‘Europe has a great deal of art and America has a great deal of money’.

Between 1905 and 1908, Joseph Jr bought like a man possessed; investing $10.5 million in three important European Old Master collections alone. From Paris he acquired the Rodolfe and Maurice Kahn collections and from Berlin the Oscar Hainauer collection. The latter included objets de vertu that, according to Duveen’s biographer Meryn Secrest, ‘made the elder Duveen’s mouth water so much that he swallowed the paintings too’. The risk was immense but Joseph Jr was a charming, fast talking dealmaker who understood the prestige aristocratic heirlooms brought to new money in America.

In later life, J. J. strove for respectability. He funded an extension of the Tate Gallery to house the Turner collection, subscribed to the public purchase of Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus (now in the National Gallery), bought Sargent’s Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth for the Tate and was knighted in 1908. But Joseph Jr was cutting corners: misattributing Renaissance paintings, damaging works when trying to prepare them for sale and even causing irreparable damage to the Elgin Marbles. Some of the works Duveen sold were alleged to be fakes.

Sir Joseph Duveen left an estate of £1.5 million: a vast sum for the turn of the 20th century but modest compared to his son’s subsequent acquisitions in the art market. Joseph Jr became director of Duveen and would dominate the Old Master market with his partner Bernard Berenson who was allegedly responsible for some of the more questionable authentications of Old Masters. Ennobled as a Baron, Lord Duveen endowed the Modern, Foreign and Sargent Galleries at the Tate (1926), the National Portrait Gallery Annex (1933) and the British Museum’s Duveen Galleries (1931) that now house the Elgin Marbles.

(c) James Sherwood


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