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Duveen: A Life in Art Hardcover – September 21, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.Read more ›
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.
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.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Very well written, Ms. Secrest keeps the story moving along by giving just enough information on the art, the times, the buyers and the Duveen family without overwhelming the... Read morePublished 18 months ago by forest williams
Secrest has given the would-be student of the life and motives of one of the most important figures of the twentieth century a sure means of understanding his ideals and methods. Read morePublished 22 months ago by Hoplon
This book on Duveen and the many things he got for Harry Huntington, now at display at the Huntington Library and Gardens, makes me realize, how many of these things came about!Published on April 11, 2014 by William Prendiz de Jurado
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who loves the art world and wants to understand the history of how art has been acquired by well known collectors.Published on February 20, 2014 by Jennifer Hogge
Describing a new group of Duveen clients --in page 286 of her book-- Meryle Secrest includes "the future governor of New York John D. Rockefeller Jr. Read morePublished on January 30, 2011 by Alfonso Perez-Mendez
I completely agree with the other reviews who found this biography a disappointment. With the author's background in biographies of other art-related individuals and the ability to... Read morePublished on August 14, 2010 by DJH Oakland CA
This is one of the most enthralling biographies that I have read. In fact I have read it twice and will probably return to it in the future! Read morePublished on August 25, 2009 by Ivor E. Zetler