DUVEEN: A Life in Art

By Meryle Secrest. Knopf. 517 pp. $35

This important study of one of the great art dealers -- one could easily say "art wheeler- dealers" -- of the first half of the 20th century is certainly a labor of love; the author, a prolific biographer, has had it in mind to write it for 27 years.

Joseph Duveen lived between 1869 and 1939, and his most active period spanned years rich in political and social upheaval, aspects of life he was always quick to perceive and exploit. He was the son of a Jewish-Dutch immigrant to England, a man of humble origins who arrived in the northeast coastal town of Hull with a few pounds in his pocket and proceeded to make a fortune in the art and antiques business. By the time Joseph became a member of his father's company's board at the age of 21, business was booming, with a London headquarters. By 1895 the New York branch of the firm was notching up profits of 500,000.

The Duveens had arrived at a perfect time, and they were perfectly placed as well. The British ruling and landed classes in general, and the English in particular, had been collecting works of art for hundreds of years; and there had been a great run on the masterpieces of Europe during the 18th and early 19th centuries, the period of the Grand Tour. The resulting collections were preserved during the bulk of the 19th century, when Britannia confidently ruled the waves. But in the 1880s, millions of acres of land overseas were planted with wheat, and when the price of wheat fell as a result, the largely agrarian-based fortunes of the British gentry fell with them. At the same time a significant number of American families were suddenly becoming very wealthy indeed, through banking, farming, the burgeoning railways and other enterprises. American commerce and industry began to overtake Europe at about the same time.

These newly rich families had an interest in acquiring European works of art. The Duveens came to their aid, advising them not only on what to collect but also on how to decorate their homes. A complicated system of spies among hotel and domestic servants ensured that the Duveens almost always kept one step ahead of the competition. They scoured Britain and the rest of Europe for masterpieces, which were then readily available from a collapsing nobility. Almost everything the family dealt in dated from no later than the 18th century.

The sums of money their customers were prepared to spend were staggering: Masterpieces could fetch $400,000 apiece even a century ago. Joseph Duveen quickly became immensely rich and went on to be first a knight and then a peer of the realm; although he lived for long periods in New York and Paris, England was always home. But there was internal strife within the family. When Joseph decided that the time had come for him to take control, for all his apparent charm and delicacy in dealing with clients and recognizing the qualities of paintings, he made quite sure that all of his 14 siblings knew who was boss.

In this book, we are presented with a man who lived his work to such an extent that it appears to have swamped other aspects of his personality. Apart from a very few tantalizing observations of the private man, we learn little about him beneath the surface. Most of the personal anecdotes are taken from an earlier biography by S.N. Behrman; otherwise we are left with a two-dimensional view of a man who does not often strike us as attractive or pleasant -- always arrogant and by turns garrulous, opinionated, bullying and fawning, depending upon the exchange.

At the close of his life, Duveen made magnificent contributions to the Tate Gallery and the British Museum, endowing them with monumental sculpture galleries; the Elgin Marbles are housed today in one of them. But he was also responsible for the ill-advised cleaning of the Parthenon sculptures at the end of the 1930s, an action that cast a shadow over his last days. There is no doubt that Meryle Secrest has done a monumental amount of research, and while at times the sheer weight of this tends to interrupt the narrative flow and bog the reader down -- one or two chapters are really just lists of deals and the people involved in them -- the overall portrait of the times Duveen lived through is valuable and fascinating. Chapter Eleven, which concentrates on the murky and even murderous world of art forgery, is a delight. And it is a revelation to discover just how shady the respected father of modern art criticism, Bernard Berenson, could be, at a time when there were few reproductions of artworks and when purchasers, often no experts themselves, had to rely on advisers. *

Anton Gill is a writer based in London and Paris. His recent books include "Art Lover," a biography of Peggy Guggenheim, and "Il Gigante," about Michelangelo's early life in Florence.

Portrait of Joseph Duveen, one of the great art dealers of the 20th century