After a decade-long sojourn among musicians (Stephen Sondheim, 1998, etc.), Secrest returns to her previous specialty (Being Bernard Berenson, 1979, etc.) with a portrait of the world’s greatest art dealer.
The flamboyant Lord Duveen (1869–1939) is still notorious in Britain for persuading aristocrats to sell him such items of their country’s cultural patrimony as Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. He invariably sold this plunder to American “squillionaires” as he called them, in time becoming a squillionaire himself. Making use of the newly unsealed Duveen Archive, Secrest documents the family’s origins and the complicated history of the Duveen firm with all its internecine quarrels. Specifically, the author clarifies the term “Duveen,” which today is tossed about as if it all referred to Joe (as he was informally known). In fact, there was first his father’s antiques shop, which Joe took over, but also several competing firms set up by brothers and cousins, all of whom Joe scared off, bought off, absorbed, or sued. Due to such business maneuvers and his long association with art historian Berenson, who authenticated Italian masters for him and sometimes made convenient changes of attribution, Duveen has always been considered a slippery character, and his biographer’s tone is breezy and superior, bordering on condescending. (She also occasionally gets in over her head with art history.) Duveen’s considerable charm, however, survives the treatment he receives from Secrest, who acknowledges his acts of philanthropy to British museums and the manipulation of his stable of American clients to establish great public collections, improve private collections, or donate to already established institutions. The author struggles to keep Duveen in the context of his own age, but frequently judges him based on contemporary standards of conservation and ethics. She does make it clear that museums in Britain and the US would be far worse off without the great Duveen, warts and all.
Casts new and unexpectedly sympathetic light on arguably the dominant figure in the early-20th-century art world. (86 photos and illustrations)