It is a typical week between Christmas-and-New Year’s in New York. Cold, not so cold, a dusting of snow, lots of grey skies suggesting more snow, then warming temperatures. And quiet. I was reminded of how it felt when I used to come here during college vacations. Lots of people on the street, lots of touring around, but quiet, subdued.|
I’ve just finished Meryle Secrest’s biography of Joseph Duveen, one of the greatest art dealers in the history of the great American collections of the 20th century. Lord Duveen of Millbank, as he was dubbed when made a baronet in the 1920s, was the first born (in 1869) of a large family (eleven children) of a leading dealer in porcelains and art in London, Joel Joseph Duveen. The child grew up to be imbued with an obsession for the business. He LOVED his business, and he was very good at it.
The book made me want to visit The Frick, which I’ve done many many times, just to look again at some of the pieces that Duveen brought to the collector, to re-visit with their stories in mind.
Duveen on the other hand dealt in “the best.” He paid top prices and he’d buy something that he didn’t have a client for and still pay a top price for it. He was also a very modern man (born at the height of the Victorian age) in that he knew how to market and how to merchandise. His public relations was often brilliant.
And thus he attracted or went after the biggest of the big rich American art collectors at the beginning of the 20th century. Otto Kahn, Jules Bache, H.E. and Arabella Huntington, Andrew Mellon, William Randolph Hearst, John D. Rockefeller Jr., Anna Dodge, S.H. Kress, P.A.B. Widener, Benjamin Altman, Marjorie Meriwether Post, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and Henry Clay Frick were frequent buyers at Duveen’s galleries and they spent hundreds of millions with him over the decades.
The man was a charmer, a fast-talker, a deal maker, an impassioned man who loved art the way a gardener loves his flowers. He was always working it, albeit with an elegant veneer that was a birthright. A great many of his clients had come from nothing and made kingly fortunes. Duveen met up with them when they were in their spending mode, in their efforts to “raise themselves up,” to manifest that kingliness that money encourages in many an imagination.
Frick was drawn to New York after he made his great fortune, like his one-time partner Andrew Carnegie, and continued to do business here. For years he rented the Vanderbilt Mansion at 640 Fifth Avenue where W.H. Vanderbilt had his huge art gallery. Later, as his collection was taking on an important form, he decided to build the house on Fifth Avenue and 70th Street. By this time he had become an important buyer of paintings in the world, meaning, Old Masters.
Occasionally he bought something through Duveen but for years Frick bought most of his works of art from Knoedler, an arch-competitor of Duveen. Rene Gimpel, another art dealer described Frick as a man with eyes of solid steel. He was a hard nut for Duveen to crack.
According to Secrest, Duveen regarded Frick as a man with a tendency to buy “junk.” He had never bought antique furnishings or objets from anyone. And he always said he never would. But by 1915 as the mansion on Fifth and 70th was going up, he needed something to put in it. Lots of things. Duveen sold only the best 18th century French furniture. He turned to Duveen.
The problem for Duveen was pointing Frick in the right (or rather, Duveen’s) direction. To gain the rich industrialist’s confidence required appealing to him with the possibility of obtaining something desirable. And since he wasn’t inclined to buy “beauty,” (Duveen’s idea of beauty), the question was: how could he be convinced?
The opportunity came to Duveen in 1913 after the death of J.P. Morgan. Morgan had one of the greatest private art collections in America. And Morgan was a titan of world finance, so therefore anything he owned had provenance. Some thought his collection would go to the Met. But Morgan wanted them to dedicate a wing, named for him, in exchange for the collection and this did not occur, so he left it to his heirs.
These panels were commissioned in 1771 for a pavilion that Louis XV was building for his last mistress, Madame du Barry at Louveciennes. However, the king died three years later, du Barry was automatically exiled from the court and the panels remained in the possession of the painter until his death in 1806. J.P. Morgan bought them ninety-two years later in London from the firm of Thomas Agnew, and paid a huge price — $350,000 (millions in today’s currency).
Duveen was, at the time of Morgan’s purchase, involved in the decoration of Morgan’s house at Prince’s Gate in London. It was Duveen who decided the panels should have a special room. After Morgan’s death, they were removed along with the cornices and the woodwork from the Prince’s Gate room, and shipped to New York.
|One day, during the exhibit at the Met, Duveen happened to be visiting the museum and he happened to see Frick’s dealer, Knoedler and his associates studying the Fragonard panels. Putting two and two together, he surmised that Knoedler planned to buy them from the Morgan estate and sell them to Frick. The next morning Duveen went to see Jack Morgan and asked the price of the panels. It was $1.25 million (25 times that in today’s currency). Duveen offered Jack Morgan a million cash. Morgan was unimpressed: “take it or leave it,” he told Duveen. Duveen took it.
Duveen also bought a vast collection of porcelains (1400 pieces) from the Morgan estate, and for the astounding price of $3 million. First dibs on this fantastic collection went, of course, to Mr. Frick for his new house, and he naturally wanted to own what Mr. Morgan had owned. Duveen had laid the groundwork to acquire a major client.
Duveen ingratiated himself with his refined skills at making the sale. In the long run, as it always did with him, it paid off. Frick became a very big customer and went for the best that Duveen had to offer. But it wasn’t easy. Duveen’s assistance with the Fragonard room confirmed his talents for directing interior decoration, but Mr. Frick still remained loyal to his dealers at Knoedler's when it came to buying paintings. Duveen, ever the competitor, continued to look for ways to sell pictures to Frick. In time he found them, and Meryle Secrest recounts those stories compellingly.
Yesterday afternoon at The Frick Collection there was a big crowd of visitors. I was somewhat surprised as I’m used to the space and quiet of the place. It was pointed out, however, that this week when schools are out and many take vacations, there are always more visitors. And, right now at The Frick they have the La Fornarina by Raphael on exhibit in the Oval Room. The painting has never been exhibited in the United States before and it is stunningly beautiful.
JH and I looked around at some of the items that came through Lord Duveen and I tried to imagine what it must have been like for those two men in these rooms going over the plans and ideas for what is now one of the premier collections open to the public in America.