Sunday, January 2, 2011

Behind the Duveen Gallery


The recent of the new Parthenon Museum in Athens poignently reminds us of the marble fragments now kept defiantly in the stark gallery in the British Museum in London. The gallery itself was built in 1937-8 and named after its founder Joseph Duveen (1st Baron Duveen of Millbank), arguably one of the most influential art dealers of all time. In the context of the subject of this blog, though not directly involved in the trade in portable antiquities per se, Duveen seems to have been to no little extent influential on the development of the attitudes that lay behind a substantial part of it. Duveen died almost exactly seventy years ago (May 25th 1939), so it seems worth paying a little attention to this gentleman.*

Born into a family involved in the import business in Hull, from 1909 onwards Duveen began to focus on the lucrative trade in paintings. Due to his good eye, skilled salesmanship and insight into human behavior he quickly became one of the world's leading art dealers. In this he was helped by his partnership (between 1912 and 1936) with Bernard Berenson and together they above all generated increased interest in the US in works of art of the Renaissance. Duveen was knighted for his philanthropy in 1919 and in 1933 he was created Baron Duveen, of Millbank (in the City of Westminster).
A large part of the market on which Duveen concentrated was in the States, he famously noted that "Europe has a great deal of art, and America has a great deal of money". He thus found a niche buying works of art from declining European aristocrats and selling them to the millionaires of the United States in which he was very successfull. See also the online review of the biography "Duveen: A Life in Art", by Meryle Secrest, New York, Knopf, 2004; by Peter Dailey ('The Dealer King').

Duveen played an important role in convincing the so-called "robber baron " industrialists and financiers that buying art was a means of social legitimation, a means of buying upper-class status and reknown. Duveen's clients included Henry Clay Frick, William Randolph Hearst, Henry E. Huntington, J.P. Morgan, Samuel H. Kress, Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller, and Frank Porter Wood in Canadia. Another of his clients in his later years was J. Paul Getty. Through the donation of the collections of these individuals to public institutions, many of the works that Duveen shipped across the Atlantic now comprise the core of the collections of many of the United States' finest museums, for example the Frick collection in New York, the Frank P. Wood collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Huntington Library, and the Mellon and Kress collections now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington and elsewhere.

The marketing skills of dealers like Duveen seem to be responsible for the current attitudes of US collectors of portable antiquities such as coins. We see these collectors time and time again presenting themselves as some kind of intellectual elites, preserving for the hoi polloi around them selected elements of "classical culture" and an awareness of "other cultures" which (they argue) is being eroded by declining standards in public education in the States. They present their mission as a public one pursued through private collection, a paradox that is not peceived due to the legacy of dealers like Duveen and the "robber baron" collectors. The main difference is that the collections today are so much more widespread and down market from Duveen's day, instead of the second Ardabil Carpet, these collectors are buying "English dug ups" (bulk lots of Roman coins for "zapping"), bulk lots of broken metal artefacts stripped from Balkan Roman settlements and cemeteries, grave pots and lamps, shabti figures from Egyptian tombs and the odd mummified human foot or other such grisly status-enhancing (sic) "relic".

* This text is largely compiled from Wikipedia, which is also the source of the photo used here.

1 comment:

  1. Worth noting, in the context of this blog, the corrupting nature of his partnership with Berenson. Berenson represented himself as a disinterested scholar (and connoisseur extraordinaire), but he was getting both an annual commission from Duveen as well as a cut of Duveen's sales on objects which he had authenticated. A number of Berenson's "scholarly" articles about "newly discovered" paintings focus on objects that Duveen was selling, even though that fact is never mentioned in the article. But of course Berenson's scholarly imprimatur greatly enhanced the market value of those works. It was the exposure of this stunning degree of corruption, shortly after Berenson died, by art historian Meyer Schapiro that brought the whole practice of connoisseurship into disrepute.