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Meet The Scheming Guardians Of Taste For America’s Nouveau Riche 100 Years Ago


“[T]here are lots of worse things that bad men might do than buy good pictures.” Life Magazine, June 22, 1911

The above quote, from an article looking back on perhaps the first major art business scandal to hit these shores a little more than a century ago, neatly encapsulates the role of Duveen Brothers, a firm of art and antiques dealers that helped shape the tastes of major American collectors, as well as the museums that ultimately benefited from these collectors’ philanthropy.

In her fascinating new book, “Duveen Brothers and the Market for Decorative Arts, 1880-1940,” Charlotte Vignon, Ph.D., a curator at The Frick Collection, shows how many of the art objects that went into grand residences across the United States in the preceding century were obtained by the Duveens using tactics similar to those employed by their famous clients, such as the Fricks, Morgans, and Rockfellers. Hard bargaining, sleight-of-hand, gambling, and an assortment of activities with questionable ethical or legal status were all part of the game in the art world a century ago; to some extent, one could argue this is still the case.

Who Were the Duveen Brothers?

Henry Duveen (1854-1919) and Joel Duveen (1843-1908), who came from a long line of Dutch antiques and bric-a-brac dealers, settled in the Yorkshire port city of Kingston upon Hull in the 1860s, and over time expanded their business to open prestigious galleries in London, New York, and Paris. Duveen Brothers became the place for the well-to-do to acquire new objects for their collections, in atmospheres more reminiscent of a fine jewelry store or haute couture boutique instead of the grandma’s attic surroundings that tended to permeate such shops before the Duveens came to dominate the market.

The business’s reputation was only enhanced when Joel’s son Joseph Duveen (1869-1939) expanded its range to buying and selling Old Master paintings. As a result, Duveen Brothers practically controlled the upper end of the art and antiques market, particularly among major American collectors, until World War II.

While the history of how Joseph Duveen became a major player in the international art market has already been well-documented by other historians, in her new work Vignon concentrates primarily on the non-painting side of the Duveen family business. Through painstaking research of the company’s records, she has constructed an intriguing history of the firm, as told through its documents.

The first part of the book explains the rise and fall of the Duveens; in the second, the author takes particular types of objects sold by Duveen Brothers, and explores in greater detail how the company got into these different areas of the art market. What emerges is a sense that, as is often the case with luxury goods, surface and manipulation managed just as much as—and sometimes even more than—authenticity and connoisseurship.

Here’s Are Some Examples of This Chicanery

For example, in 1916 Joseph Duveen lent a bronze sculpture of “Diana the Huntress,” supposedly by the great French sculptor Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), to the California railroad mogul Henry Huntington, placing it on a table in the “Boucher Room” of the Huntingtons’ Los Angeles County estate. The room was already decorated with tapestries designed by Madame du Pompadour’s favorite artist, François Boucher (1703-1770), as well as with costly 18th century French furniture, all obtained through Duveen Brothers.

Even though the decoration of the room was already finished, and Huntington made it clear that he did not want any more works of art for the space, Joseph reasoned that over time, Mrs. Huntington would succumb to his praise of the sculpture in the spot he had chosen to display it, and would want to own the piece.

In the end, Huntington did purchase the sculpture, just as Duveen had intended. Unfortunately, subsequent research revealed the bronze to be a late 19th century or early 20th century copy, not an 18th century original. Nor was this the first and only instance of the Duveens selling wealthy collectors works of art that later turned out to be copies and fakes.

While not unnecessarily dwelling on the subject, Vignon explains exactly how the Duveens made damaged or questionable art objects look better, or strategically stroked clients’ egos while talking up objects of questionable authenticity, to sell these objects at grossly inflated prices.

For example, Vignon goes into fascinating detail on how Duveen Brothers employed a host of restoration and fabrication experts, capable of making a battered old piece of furniture look nearly pristine, or of making a brand new piece of furniture look suitably old. Sometimes, the repair work was so extensive that the Duveens effectively created new objects, rather than restoring old ones. At other times, new pieces were made in an old style and sold mixed in with genuine antique items, without explicitly telling the buyer that some of the objects were not as old as they seemed to be.

Restoration—Or Fabrication?

Another among the many questionable practices the Duveen Brothers used was “reviving” tapestries. Over time, pigments dyed onto fabric tend to fade because of factors such as exposure to sunlight, changes in temperature and humidity, and how these objects are displayed or stored.

The restoration department at Duveen’s would clean the tapestries obtained by the dealers, and then “revive” their faded colors using modern aniline dyes, rather than the old, natural dyes derived from things like plants, in order to make them look brighter. Such practices would be frowned upon by conservators today, but at the time, the Duveens’ clients were generally more interested in how impressive an art object looked, rather than in its artistic integrity or meaning.

Case in point: in a section of the book dedicated to the firm’s involvement in the trade of Medieval and Renaissance art objects, Vignon describes how Duveen Brothers acquired a pair of major religious tapestries dating to about 1500, one of which is now in the Art Institute of Chicago.

In one telegram, Duveen’s experts opine on the tapestries in question that “when they are cleaned and revived they will make such an effect that one will scarcely notice religious subjects.” Thus, this was a piece intended to be seen as an expensive, flashy, and showy object of luxury, not as something designed to honor God, or epitomizing the faith and piety of its next owner—who, in this case, happened to be William Randolph Hearst. (Res ipsa…)

The Greatest American Art Scandal of the Time

When transporting their art objects from Europe or Asia to their American customers, the Duveens eventually ran afoul of the law, thereby creating the first major American art business scandal, and narrowly missing going to prison in the process. Their trial was a sensation in the press at the time.

Vignon describes in great detail how the firm attempted to get around tariff duties on the objects they imported to the United States, and how they positioned themselves in the press to come out of the crisis with their heads held high. It makes fascinating reading, as one realizes that the Duveens were caught not by comparison of computer databases in a manner of seconds, as would be the case today, but by old-fashioned, forensic accounting methods, such as scrutinizing customs forms and ledger books.

For example, in one of their customs declarations, the Duveens listed “Four cases of tapestry furniture and tapestry panels” with an estimated value of $1,665, but they had actually paid a total of $38,658 for these items. “Four Sèvres candlesticks and one pair of Sèvres figures” were declared to be worth $950, even though their books revealed that the firm had paid $38,630 for these French porcelain objects.

In another instance, the Duveens paid $36,960 for a writing table, probably an 18th century French piece with a royal provenance, but told customs officials that it, too, was only worth $950. As a point of comparison, consider that around this time, you could buy a new, basic Steinway baby grand piano for around $1,100, while that same model piano would probably run you close to $30,000 today, new.

Art Dealers, Or Drug Dealers?

Then there were the astronomically inflated prices the Duveens charged to their clients, in most cases, because one can pretty much guarantee that the desk which Duveen Brothers paid $37,000 for was sold for two or three times that amount. Sometimes they would rope in new clients by letting them have what they wanted at cost, knowing that, later on, when the client was hooked on buying fine and decorative art, Duveen Brothers could charge whatever it wanted, and the client would comply.

What better way to tone down the shiny newness of their money than by acquiring old works of art from the very people whom they hoped to emulate?

This type of practice may seem rather strangely reminiscent of the relationship between a drug dealer and an addict, when looking at a supposedly shrewd, rational person. J.P. Morgan, for example, didn’t ask the Duveens why he was being charged the same price (or more) for a suite of modern furniture made in an antique style and covered in antique fabric as for genuine antique furniture covered in antique fabric. He was gouged on both when the Duveens decorated his London home. Why, with all of his business acumen, did Morgan or the other collectors usually not raise a fuss?

I think the answer is that, like most of Duveen’s clients, Morgan simply didn’t want to know. Nearly everyone to whom the Duveens sold was nouveau-riche: the Huntingtons, Morgans, Rockfellers, and so on had been catapulted economically into the ruling class, without having acquired princely tastes or manners along the way. They felt socially insecure, particularly when mixing with the aristocracy of Britain and the Continent, and what better way to tone down the shiny newness of their money than by acquiring old works of art from the very people whom they hoped to emulate, while at the same time engaging in competition with their American peers and competitors?

The Duveens were happy to make those connections on their behalf and, as Vignon points out on multiple occasions in the book, drove home to their clients how important it was, and how much a sign of good taste, for them to allow Duveen’s to decorate their rooms with period furnishings like a genuine aristocrat would have. In a majority of cases, these wealthy clients were going along with this without even having seen the objects Duveen Brothers were selling them until they showed up at their homes.

This Approach Has Consequences, Of Course

Yet a net effect of this reliance on the pedagogical influence of an art dealer, who after all has a profit motive first in his mind, is the fact that many of the collections assembled by these collectors can be formulaic. One sees the same Louis XV fauteuils covered in old tapestry or needlepoint, and the same marquetry cabinets full of frolicking Meissen nymphs, over and over again. This sort of blandness was even noticed at the time, shortly before the kind of “period room” taste of the Duveens began to fall into disfavor.

In 1931 Wilhelm Valentiner, the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, visited the California home of the Huntingtons, where among other things he marveled at Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788)’s masterpiece, “The Blue Boy” (c. 1770), which had been acquired through Duveen’s a decade earlier. In his diary, Valentiner commented on how beautiful, but how boring, the Huntington collection was.

“[Huntington’s] is really a wonderful collection, of English masterworks of the 18th century,” he wrote, “but the whole thing is so very impersonal, built of no personality. It really was built by an art-dealer.”

By Thomas Gainsborough – 1. britsattheirbest.com2. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, Public Domain, Link

So what are we to make of these collections built by art dealers like the Duveens, rather than by people who trusted in their own taste? In the aftermath of the 1911 trial, the aforementioned Life Magazine article reflected on the role of Duveens, and the nature of art business in America at the turn of the previous century:

But let us get back to the Duveens; it has been their misfortune to have to trade chiefly with people who had quantities of money, and with many who had got it anyhow. Selling loot to freebooters can’t be really good for the moral sense. Let us make allowance for these merchants. They have brought many beautiful things to our country, and that has been a useful service…They are convicted scamps, and their taste has been good. We need, as a people, both taste and morals. They are not incompatible, but it is not unusual to find one without the other. It does not seem entirely consistent with a large appreciation of human needs to lock up people who have taste without morals, and let people who have morals without taste go loose.

Living, as we do, in an age devoid of both morals and taste, it may seem difficult to imagine that the likes of Duveen Brothers could ever exist again. Yet don’t some people furnish their homes, dress themselves, or choose the very foods they eat because a famous person tells them this is what they need to do to be up-to-date, fashionable, or in harmony with whatever ecological concept they worship in place of God?

At the billionaire end of the economic scale, aren’t tech executives and hedge fund managers who can’t tell an etching from a woodcut buying art worth hundreds of millions of dollars because a dealer assures them that this is the way to demonstrate their high status to…other tech executives and hedge fund managers?

Perhaps, our society is not really that different from the one in which Duveen Brothers operated so successfully nearly a century ago.

“Duveen Brothers and the Market for Decorative Arts, 1880-1940” by Charlotte Vignon, Ph.D., is published by D. Giles, Ltd., in association with The Frick Collection, and is out now in hardback.