• Joseph Joel Duveen, Baron Duveen; Elsie (née Salomon), Lady Duveen, by ACME Newspictures, Inc. Bromide print, 21 September 1932. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Story Jan 17, 2019 London

How Duveen Made European Art Part of American Culture

In a time of great social, political, and economic change, Sir Joseph Duveen famously spotted an opportunity: Europe had a lot of art and America had a lot of money. As Duveen biographer S. N. Behrman wrote in The New Yorker in 1951, “his entire astonishing career was the product of that simple observation.” [i]

While Duveen’s observation was certainly simple—and genius—the confluence of circumstances that made the relationship between America’s money and Europe’s art such an incredibly successful one was much more complex. As part of our broader efforts to celebrate the legacy of Sir Joseph Duveen—one that informs our ongoing exhibition in London, Lord Duveen My Pictures Never Look So Marvellous As When You Are Here—this post will consider some of the elements that contributed to Duveen’s legendary success as an art dealer, and that helped him to build some of the most important art collections recognized today.

Duveen’s Incredible Business Acumen

Duveen brought exceptional insight and ingenuity to his trade. Always intently focused on the sale, he was a master at identifying (some might say creating) the problem his market faced, and then providing the solution. When John D. Rockefeller Jr. felt that the price of $1.5 million was too high for a trio of busts Duveen had offered to sell him, the dealer insisted that Rockefeller keep the busts in his residence for a year’s time to think things over. Several months later, Rockefeller made a counter-offer, which Duveen rejected. When the holding period was nearly over, Rockefeller told Duveen he wouldn’t buy the busts, and asked him to take them back. Duveen magnanimously insisted that the three works—a Verrocchio, a Donatello, and a Desiderio da Settignano—were as safe in the Rockefeller residence as with him, and that he should retain them until the full year was over. With the deadline looming, it took only another week for Rockefeller to decide he did not wish to part with the busts, and he agreed to meet Duveen’s price. [ii]

Duveen signaled the quality of the art he traded by the size of the prices he charged. One strategy he used to convince his clients to pay top dollar was to deal only in art which had a supply he could carefully control—described by Behrman as “an economy of scarcity.” [iii] While the supply of contemporary art would be constantly replenished, the supply of Old Master paintings would not be. When faced with a client who balked at his price, Duveen turned the idea of paying a premium into an accomplishment, saying, “You can get all the pictures you want at fifty thousand dollars apiece that’s easy. But to get pictures at a quarter of a million apiece—that wants doing!” [iv]

Duveen’s buy-back policy was another crucial element in maintaining his firm grip on the market for the best Old Master paintings and sculptures. As the economics professor Manfred J. Holler and economics writer Barbara Klose-Ullmann explain, Duveen offered certain clients the warranty that if they should find they needed to resell the artwork at some later date, he would buy it back for the original price: “…repurchasing at high prices was the best strategy of Duveen Brothers to protect themselves and their policy that made the works of certain artists immune from market control.” This approach also came in handy when the attribution of an artwork to a certain artist became the subject of debate. If the work was put up for auction with a new attribution, the price might fall, along with confidence in the Duveen expertise. [v]

Duveen also found ways to make himself and his business more broadly useful to his clients, engendering trust and gratitude. He allowed one client to store his cigars in the Duveen vaults in London and Paris, and facilitated what would be known today as “warm introductions” to European nobility for America’s emergent upper class. Behrman explains that this was no small courtesy to the “immensely rich Americans, shy and suspicious of casual contacts because of their wealth, [who] often didn’t know where to go or what to do with themselves when they were abroad.” [vi]

Cultural Ambition in America

In Henry James’ novel The Outcry, he described the class of fantastically wealthy American industrialists who rose to power after the end of the Civil War as, “conquering hordes, only armed now with huge checkbooks instead of spears and battleaxes.” [vii] This class, commonly referred to as the “robber barons,” was truly exceptional for the wealth it had accumulated. As Malcolm Gladwell (quoted by Catherine Hess) explained in his 2008 book Outliers, the particular moment in America’s development when this generation came of age put them within reach of a host of opportunities “in mining, oil, steel, transportation, and banking that their predecessors and successors did not have.” Indeed, 14 of the top 75 wealth holders of all time were born between 1831 and 1840. [viii]

Yet despite the incredible impact this generation was making on the American economy, the ambition they felt—both for their country, and themselves—went beyond economic superiority, aspiring to cultural leadership as well.  In this, Joseph Duveen could help. Holler and Klose-Ullmann describe how Duveen was able to capitalize on the American industrialists’ distaste for their “robber baron” image, presenting them with a nobler vision of their class, and holding their hand every step of the way.

Duveen’s focus on Old Master paintings—particularly those from the Italian Renaissance—dovetailed with a broader renewal of interest in this period. In 1878, the English translation of Jacob Burckhardt’s influential historical work, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, was published in London and released in America a year later. [ix] Julia Ady’s biographies of Italian Renaissance luminaries such as Raphael and Botticelli were published in the early 1900s and went through several reprints in the United States. [x] Perhaps most relevant to Duveen’s goals, however was the 1883 publication of “A Lesson for Merchant Princes,” an article written by an American-born art critic then living in Florence, James Jackson Jarvis. [xi]

Portrait of Giovanni di Bernardo Rucellai (1475 – 1525), engraved by Giacomo Malosso from a painting owned by the Rucellai family, 19th C. Public domain.

Jackson Jarvis held up the Florentine merchant banker Giovanni Rucellai (1403-1481) as a model for America’s wealthy industrialists to emulate. Writing in the text Zibaldone, Rucellai not only described his wealth as a gift from God, he also argued that divine inspiration lay behind his particular approach to spending money, which involved a substantial outlay on works of art. For Rucellai, there were three key reasons for a wealthy man of his time to be a patron of the arts: such beneficence first honored God; it then honored his city (in Rucellai’s case, Florence); and finally to become a true patron of the arts was to immortalize oneself. [xii] In the context of America’s wealthy industrialists, art patronage allowed them to honor God, the country their industry was helping to build, and to cast themselves as something better than a profiteer, rather they could become cultural benefactors. [xiii]

Lean Times for Europe’s Aristocracy

The nineteenth and early twentieth century saw great political and social changes take hold in western society, and these had an enormous impact on the distribution of wealth, particularly in Europe. The substantial land holdings of Europe’s aristocracy became significantly less profitable as countries such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand began supplying the international agricultural market. Holler and Klose-Ullmann note that between 1880 and 1894, the price of grain in England decreased by more than 50%. This followed a period of widespread bankruptcy claims in the late 1870s, resulting from the crash of the major stock exchanges. [xiv]

Print made by John West Giles, active 1827–1865, Mr. Jonas Webb, of Babraham, and his Three Rams, 1842, Lithograph with hand coloring on thick, moderately textured, cream wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. Public Domain.

The most significant factor, however, came early in the twentieth century, with the First World War:

“The ‘reallocation of art’ from Europe to America continued over the following decades because of World War I and its aftermath, for instance, the hyperinflation in Germany and the subsequent economic crisis. In addition three imperial reigns had disappeared after World War I which had consequences for the status of the aristocracy (who lost their tax privileges) and the supply of art.” [xv]

Duveen was ever-ready to connect a continent of collectors in urgent need of liquidity with a new generation of wealth that wished to signal its arrival by acquiring the best artworks that money could buy. [xvi]

The Import Tax

Yet while the fortunes of the European aristocracy were beginning to fade and those of the American industrialists rose at pace, there remained significant deterrents to bringing European artworks to America. The U.S. Revenue Act of 1897 charged a 20% tariff to import any artwork of more than 100 years old into the United States. [xvii] In response, some collectors who maintained European residences simply split their collections accordingly. J. P. Morgan was a prominent example: for many years he kept only his books and manuscripts in New York, while the rest of his encyclopedic collections remained in London.

The balance began shifting dramatically, however, in 1909, when the Payne Aldrich Act abolished the U.S. Revenue Act import tariff. The following year in Britain, David Lloyd George introduced a 15% death duty on all estates for all residents, payable by the descendants of the deceased. Morgan immediately moved his London collection to the United States, where he could further take advantage of financial incentives introduced to “promote public welfare” in the 1890s, that encouraged wealthy collectors to bequeath their art to museums. [xviii]

Morgan had collected all manner of art and objects on an unprecedented scale: his wife Fanny had remarked that her husband “would buy anything from a pyramid to Mary Magdalene’s tooth” (indeed, Morgan owned a reliquary monstrance from 15th century Florence that purported to hold that very thing). When he died in 1913, he was considered by his wealthy contemporaries to be “art rich and cash poor,” leaving an estate worth roughly $80 million, of which $60 million was tied up in his collections. Morgan left 7,000 artworks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while 1,300 works of fine and decorative art were bequeathed to the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, CT, his hometown. [xix]

Reliquary of Mary Magdalene, 14th and 15th century. Made in Tuscany, Italy. Gilded copper, gilded silver, rock crystal, verre églomisé; Overall 22 x 9 3/8 x 7 15/16 in. (55.9 x 23.8 x 20.2 cm), roundel 3 3/8 in. (8.6 cm). Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917. Public Domain.

It was Joseph Duveen’s uncle Henry, who specialized in porcelain, French furniture, and tapestries, who held the primary relationship with J.P. Morgan. [xx] Nevertheless, the younger Duveen eventually got an opportunity to transact with the Morgan collection. In 1915, Duveen brokered the sale of multiple works of fine and decorative art on behalf of Morgan’s son, Jack. He sold them to Henry Clay Frick, who was then at the beginning of his working relationship with Duveen. Those works included fourteen Fragonard panels, Chinese porcelains, Limoges enamels, Renaissance bronzes and eighteenth-century French furniture. Sold for over five million dollars, these works helped to furnish Frick’s Fifth Avenue residence, which today is open to the public as the Frick Collection. [xxi]

Credibility and Connoisseurship: Bernard Berenson

Holler and Klose-Ullmann draw an important distinction between the wealthy Italians who became influential patrons of the arts during the Renaissance, such as Rucellai, and the American industrialists who emulated them hundreds of years later: the Renaissance-era patrons were purchasing what was, then, contemporary art, and consequently they had little reason to question the authenticity of an artwork, or to doubt its comparative quality. These things were largely self-evident. The collectors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, though, were entirely divorced from this context, and there was an increasing desire to access trustworthy advice to inform their decisions. [xxii]

The vulnerability uninformed collectors faced was brought into focus with the 1908 scandal involving Dutch art dealer Leo Nardus. Nardus had sold a substantial group of paintings to the American industrialist Peter Arrell Brown Widener, who later discovered that the works had been sold to him under what he alleged were “gross false pretenses,” and were in fact worth a mere 5% of what he had paid Nardus for them. [xxiii] Duveen increasingly dealt in Italian Renaissance art, and he realized the advantage his business could enjoy by partnering with a recognized expert in the field. That expert was Bernard Berenson. [xxiv]

Berenson had an established reputation in the United States as a connoisseur and critic of Italian Renaissance painting and sculpture, and a robust publication history. In 1900 he began residing full-time in Italy, by which point he also had a number of wealthy advisory clients, such as Isabella Stewart Gardner. [xxv] Partnering with Duveen in 1907, Berenson’s ability to influence taste and earn a reliable income increased significantly. Art historian Mary Ann Calo states that, “His economic ambition was coupled with a sincere, albeit self-serving, desire to improve American culture via access to great historical works of art.” [xxvi] Berenson was determined to dislodge the American affection for academic art and French salon painting, and while Calo characterizes the scholar as having much more catholic tastes than his reputation suggested, to achieve his goal, he kept his message focused on the promotion of Italian Renaissance art during return trips to America. [xxvii]

The marriage of experts proved an immensely profitable partnership, but it was not a perfect union. Although Berenson characterized himself as an impartial academic, from 1912, he and Duveen engaged in a profit-sharing agreement, with Berenson boosting his retainer with an additional commission based on Duveen’s profit from any sale Berenson had advised on or facilitated. [xxviii] Yet in spite of his faltering ethics, Berenson refused to authenticate several pictures that Duveen was keen to sell, and their professional relationship caused Berenson great aggravation. The partnership was described by one Duveen employee as “constant bickering and at times outright antagonism.” [xxix] It was a particularly heated and protracted argument that ultimately resulted in the dissolution of the partnership in 1938. [xxx] Though his contribution to scholarship remains widely acknowledged to this day, Berenson wrote prior to his death that he regretted commoditizing his knowledge, and that he wished he had remained in scholarship alone. [xxxi] By then, both the market in art and its study had evolved significantly. In her profile of the Berenson-Duveen partnership, Rachel Cohen notes the complexity—and irony—of this evolution:

“American universities had departments of art history and American cities had museums. These institutions (staffed by people who had trained under Berenson, and full of paintings sold by Duveen) carefully cultivated a position of independence from the market. When Berenson and Duveen started out, combining learning and commerce had often been the only viable option for Jews in the art world.” [xxxii]

When Berenson died, he bequeathed his Italian residence, the Villa I Tatti, as well as his art collection, library, archives, and photographs to Harvard University. Today the Villa I Tatti is home to the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, and hosts appointees studying Italian Renaissance art, history, music, literature, philosophy, and history of science. [xxxiii]


From this complex set of circumstances emerges a story that impacts us still today. Duveen was a key player in the development of some of the most important art collections in Britain and America, many of which have since become public. Perhaps equally important is the insight we gain into the formation of the contemporary art market, by understanding the social and political changes that Duveen so deftly navigated to build his empire.



Lord Duveen, My Pictures Never Look So Marvellous As When You Are Here is on view at Lévy Gorvy London through February 9, 2019.



[i] S. N. Behrman, “The Days of Duveen A Legendary Art Dealer And His Clients,” The New Yorker, September 29, 1951, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1951/09/29/the-days-of-duveen.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Behrman quoted in Manfred J. Holler and Barbara Klose-Ullmann, “Art Goes America,”Journal of Economic Issues 44, Issue 1, March 2010, 94.
[iv] Behrman, “The Days of Duveen …”
[v] Holler and Klose-Ullmann, “Art Goes America,” 96.
[vi] Behrman, “The Days of Duveen …”
[vii] Henry James, quoted in Colin Bailey, “Robber Baron Collectors of the Gilded Age: Morgan, Frick, De Young. A lecture given at the Norton Simon Museum.
[viii] Gladwell quoted in Catherine Hess, “Joseph Duveen and the Building of the Huntington Art Collections,” A lecture given at the Norton Simon Museum. February 7, 2015.
[ix] Holler and Klose-Ullmann, “Art Goes America,” 90.
[x] Ibid.
[xi] Holler and Klose-Ullmann, “Art Goes America,” 91.
[xii] Ibid.
[xiii] Holler and Klose-Ullmann, “Art Goes America,” 92.
[xiv] Holler and Klose-Ullmann, “Art Goes America,” 107.
[xv] Ibid.
[xvi] Catherine Hess, “Joseph Duveen and the Building of the Huntington Art Collections,” A lecture given at the Norton Simon Museum. February 7, 2015. Video recording accessed on Vimeo.com. https://vimeo.com/177166198.
[xvii] Colin Bailey, “Robber Baron Collectors of the Gilded Age: Morgan, Frick, De Young.” A lecture given at the Norton Simon Museum. May 5, 2018. Video recording accessed on Norton Simon Museum Podcasts, iTunes.
[xviii] Bailey, “Robber Baron Collectors of the Gilded Age…”
[xix] Bailey, “Robber Baron Collectors of the Gilded Age…”
[xx] Holler and Klose-Ullmann, “Art Goes America,” 94.
[xxi] Bailey, “Robber Baron Collectors of the Gilded Age…”
[xxii] Holler and Klose-Ullmann, “Art Goes America,” 93.
[xxiii] Holler and Klose-Ullmann, “Art Goes America,” 99.
[xxiv] Holler and Klose-Ullmann, “Art Goes America,” 98.
[xxv] Mary Ann Calo, “Bernard Berenson and America.” Archives of American Art Journal 36, no.2 (1996), 8.
[xxvi] Calo, “Bernard Berenson and America,” 9.
[xxvii] Ibid.
[xxviii] Holler and Klose-Ullmann, “Art Goes America,” 99.
[xxix] Rachel Cohen, “Priceless,” The New Yorker, volume 88, issue 31, October 8, 2012.
[xxx] Holler and Klose-Ullmann, “Art Goes America,” 99.
[xxxi] Ibid.
[xxxii] Cohen, “Priceless.”
[xxxiii] “Mission,” I Tatti, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. Harvard University website. http://itatti.harvard.edu/mission.

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