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Duveen: A Life in Art Hardcover – September 21, 2004

4.0 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

No one played the high-stakes game of buying and selling Old Masters better than Joseph Duveen, later Lord Duveen of Millbank, who dominated the world art market during the 1920s and '30s. Using the Duveen Brothers' archives, recently made public, biographer Secrest (Being Bernard Berenson) delves into the history of the storied firm, chronicling the career of the audacious entrepreneur who headed it during its heyday, selling Rembrandts, Titians and other costly artworks to the likes of Andrew Mellon, J.P. Morgan and Henry Clay Frick. Duveen was a consummate salesman whose ingenious strategies included a network of "spies" who reported on the lifestyles of his wealthy clients; when a great work of art came on the market, Duveen could determine which multimillionaire would most appreciate it and then cajole and flatter him into the purchase. Secrest paints an engrossing picture of the art-dealing world, fraught with intrigues, betrayals and lawsuits, to say nothing of fakes, forgeries and misattributions. She shows how Duveen maneuvered successfully in this perilous arena; while some of his contemporaries considered Duveen "up to every artful dodge," he probably never knowingly sold a fake. Sadly, his career ended with a giant misstep when he masterminded the overcleaning of the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum. Duveen's life makes a fascinating story, well told in this accomplished biography. Photos not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

How few of America's major museums would exist without the passion and zeal of art collectors and the dealers who advised them, and yet, how rarely their fascinating stories are told. Arts biographer extraordinaire Secrest has been waiting nearly 30 years for access to the off-limit archives of the legendary Duveen Brothers, immensely influential art dealers based in London, Paris, and New York. Her dream finally came true, and the result is a grandly entertaining tale. Secrest writes with great dash, discernment, bemusement, and admiration as she chronicles the early-twentieth-century divestment of European aristocracy of their precious art collections just as a coterie of competitive American tycoons began to build mansions and seek trophies. Who helped J. P. Morgan, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon purchase invaluable decorative art and old masters? Joseph Duveen, "the most spectacular art dealer the world has ever known." But to understand the impeccable and fearless Joseph, one must understand his visionary father, Joel, the firm's founder; the rivalrous dynamics of their large, ambitious family; and the wild vagaries of fortune that make the art world such a financial juggernaut. Forgeries, dramatic auctions, spying, bribery, brazen gambling, genuine quests for beauty, and hopes for immortality--Secrest revels in it all, and then marvels over how daring Duveen and his rapacious clients became philanthropists, filling museums with the precious works they so avidly acquired. Solid history rendered deliciously anecdotal and gossipy, this is serious fun. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (September 21, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375410422
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375410420
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.6 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #614,227 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By John Matlock on September 29, 2004
Format: Hardcover
The sub-title of this book, 'A Life in Art' is absolutely true, but almost misleading. Quite a number of books with something like that in their name deal with the life of an artist. This one, instead, deals with the life of Joseph Duveen, art dealer.

Joseph Duveen lived at a time when the established order was changing. He made an early observation that while Europe had the art, America had the money. As head of Duveen Brothers (London, Paris, New York) he set up an organization finding hundreds of the Old Masters in Europe and selling them to American collecters. The list of his customers reads like a Who's Who of the American rich: Mellon, Frick, J. P. Morgan, Huntington, Kress, Hearst and many, many more.

The book is largely based on the Duveen Archive. Held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the archive was locked away and hidden. Only recently has the archive been transferred to the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities in Los Angeles. There a decision was made to make the archive available on microfilm for study. The archive consists of the documentation that accompanied the business: letters, cables, photo albums, ledgers, sales books, stock books, etc. These kinds of documents are the life blood of a business and in this case enable the author to have unparalleled insight to how the business operated. This is combined with a knac for story telling that makes the dead business documents come alive.
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Format: Hardcover
I held great hopes for this book--Duveen has long been of interest to me because of the pivotal role he played in the creation of some of the greatest art collections in this country. However, Secrest in her drive to capture the "essence" of the man has so mangled the story of his life and career that reading her work is more chore than delight. To say the book is disorganized is to deal in serious understatement. But worse than that are the inaccuracies, especially when she writes about Duveen's customers. Just for starters, apparently she didn't recognize the need to differentiate between John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his father (or maybe she didn't know there has been more than one JDR!). You won't learn much from this tome that you don't know to begin, and getting through it will be a struggle.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Duveen

A Life of Scam

I thought I would enjoy reading about the Duveen dynasty far more than I did.

This tale essentially turned out to be a story about a family that clawed its way to what it thought was the top of art, money and society. While the Duveens may have been the best at squeezing profits from heretofore undervalued works of art; it is interesting to learn how they turned art into a significant "market place" for their personal profit and gain. Unfortunately, not once in the entire book does one have the sense that any Duveen understood the meaning of the phrase "art for art's sake". Art for this family was simply a device for self aggrandizement and personal enrichment. Family relations meant nothing; as the smallest porcelain vase could pit one member against the other in a rage of avarice. As the story unfolded, it was clear this was a profile of a family bound together more by greed, jealousy and betrayal than personal loyalty or familial bonds. The glory of genuine art was lost on them, and while these Duveens traded "art" in the marketplace with passion; one soon guesses they could have been selling mattresses or tires with the same passion given similar profit. It does not take much reading to realize that almost every Duveen transaction was based on trickery or some form of deceit or swindle; all with the intent of personal enrichment. It seems the Duveen cabal possessed through the generations a certain vulgar greed that in my opinion tainted whatever passed through their smarmy hands.

The fact that the author crafted the book in such a confusing manner of presentation did not help to make this an enjoyable read.
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Format: Paperback
This is the story of Joseph Duveen, the man responsible for building the most famous private collections (later museums) in the U.S. As a dealer, he was the first to fully understand that art travels where money lives, which is to say from Europe to America.
There are many lively anecdotes recalling his relationship with Morgan, Mellon, Altman, Widener and, most of all, the diabolical Berenson (thanks to new material that surfaced recently, the confidential contract between the expert and the dealer is very well described in the book). It is true that this book is not entirely satisfactory because it is somewhat confuse and too anecdotical, but the main character is so fascinating that it still makes for good reading.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Amazon synopsis, the Booklist review, and comments from other readers tell you all you need to know about the book.

No matter how good the writing it, the "book" has to have the right feel, the right paper, the right font, the right heft -- and I would not have bought this book after seeing it at the Norton Simon museum last summer if it did not have the right feel. It is really a nice book.

I don't read many biographies of art dealers, but I visit a lot of art museums, and I read a lot of biographies. For a biography on art dealers I was surprised how enjoyable the story of the Duveen family was. Incredibly interesting.

I'm two-thirds of the way through -- I bought the book mostly to see the story behind the Duveens and Norton Simon and am so enjoying the book, I have no desire to get through the book quickly. It appears the first third of the book was on the Duveen family history and how they rose to the top; the middle third is full of interesting anecdotes about individual pieces of art, buyers, sellers, museums, etc.; and, I assume, the third section will be the epilogue, how the Duveens dissolved, literally and figuratively.

The family chart at the front of the book was indispensable. Looks like a snapshot of British royalty.

The four or five pages on the history of Gainsborough's "The Blue Boy" is perhaps the highlight of the book. But then the very next section on "Pinkie" was just as good.

The book includes almost 100 pages (96 pages to be exact) of the Duveen catalogue, between 1900 - 1939 ("a partial list") which includes the provenance for each piece of art. This alone is worth getting the book.
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