By James Tarney, Bloomberg

Book Review
Duveen Brothers and the Market for
Decorative Arts, 1880-1940

By Charlotte Vignon

IN 1930, as the US entered the second year of the Great Depression, Anna Thomson Dodge decided to build a mansion in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan.

Her husband, a founder of Dodge Motors, had died several years before, and she had money to spend — reportedly up to $1.8 million a year. Dodge enlisted Joseph Duveen, one of the most prestigious art dealers in the world, to help her spend it.

“When you were here I mentioned I had purchased some finest 18th century French furniture from palaces in Russia,” the dealer wrote in a telegram. “Many of them have arrived which I hope to have pleasure showing you on return America.”

It was, in fact, Dodge’s pleasure. After seeing the objects, she ended up spending $2.5 million, which, adjusted for inflation, is about $40 million in today’s dollars. Among her purchases were a Rembrandt oil painting ($315,000), a gilt-bronze clock ($54,000), and a gaming table that apparently belonged to the Marquise de Pompadour ($19,000).

The story of the Duveen family’s rise from bric-a-brac dealers to multimillionaire dealers-cum-connoisseurs is a familiar one: Ambitious young merchants take a gamble and end up in the right place (America) at the right time (just as the impoverished British aristocracy was desperate to sell off its possessions) and make good.

But in the new book Duveen Brothers and the Market for Decorative Arts, 1880-1940 (Giles; $59.95), the family’s story has a different kind of resonance, one that might strike an ominous note for anyone in the art world.

Written by Charlotte Vignon, a curator of decorative arts at the Frick Collection in New York, the book could serve as a template for art dealing in the 21st century.

The familiar pitches (a painting is a “masterpiece”), the panicked search for a rich person onto whom dealers can offload inventory (“Our unsold stock $15,000,000 is full of coups”), the spectacular markups, the very prominent record-setting at auction in order to justify private prices, and the calculated donations to institutions — not to mention the desperate attempt to appear as if money were a secondary concern — will be familiar to anyone who’s bought or sold so-called fine art.

But the Duveens’ success was contingent on a market for 17th century and 18th century French decorative arts, Old Masters, and, to a lesser extent, Chinese porcelain. That market was sustained for an unusually long time, but eventually taste changed. By the time Joseph Duveen died in 1939, the ornate furniture, gilded porcelain and chinoiserie, heavy brocade, and neoclassical decoration were on their way out, and the gallery was destined for oblivion. In 1964, the industrialist Norton Simon bought its building, contents, archive, and library. It’s a reminder of the fickleness of taste that should chill any contemporary collector today.

The Duveen family had been dealing in art and antiques for centuries (one member of the family sold part of Charles I of England’s collection to Louis XIV), but when Joel Duveen (Joseph’s father) began his career in the mid 19th century at his uncle’s curiosity shop in Haarlem, Netherlands, a bright future was by no means assured.

It was only in the late 1870s, when he partnered with his brother Henry that things took off. Henry set up shop in New York, and Joel stayed on, now in London; in 1890 they founded the Duveen Brothers gallery. At about the same time, they opened up a Paris branch, not to grow business among the French, but to receive American customers in Paris, Vignon writes.

The key to the Duveen brothers’ success was, it turned out, decoration. Not simply the act of selling it, but the entire process of building, then filling, a house from scratch.

Joel’s nephew James wrote in the early 1890s that “my uncle had undertaken the decoration for some great houses of American clients.” That decoration, he continued, “always included enormous sales of precious things to fill these houses.”

When not organizing decorations directly — as they did with the Huntington mansion in San Marino, California — they collaborated with pliant interior decorators.

Whitemarsh Hall, the 147-room palace outside Philadelphia built by Edward and Eva Stotesbury — Henry Ford apparently visited and remarked that, “It’s a great experience to see how the rich live” — was filled and decorated by the Duveens, as were multiple rooms in Henry Frick’s house.

The book makes effective use of Duveen Brothers’ archive and, as a result, readers are treated to a tutorial on the truly astronomical sums spent by turn-of-the-20th-century robber barons. Arabella Huntington, the wife of two railroad tycoons, spent more than $1.5 million on art and decoration from Duveen Brothers to furnish her Paris home in 1907; a few years later, British banker Herman Alfred Stern spent $4.4 million at Duveen on decoration for his London residence. (Remember, this is 1900s money; today’s prices are about 2,600% higher, after inflation.)

J.P. Morgan bought most of the interior decoration for his London mansion from the Duveen brothers and similarly filled up his house in New York with objects sourced from the family.

In March 1915, Duveen sent the coal baron Henry Clay Frick an invoice for $1.97 million; a few months later, he sent an additional invoice for $1.39 million; the next year, Frick got an invoice for $5 million; and two years later, Frick paid a further $2.1 million.

It’s not just that these are dollar amounts that still shock today; it’s that once Joseph Duveen died and tastes began to change, they remain high-water marks a century later.

And this is where the cautionary tale comes to a head. The Duveens managed to dominate taste for a startling three decades, but after the gallery’s decline, many of their clients’ possessions plummeted in value.

This had happened before — in the depths of the Depression, Vignon writes, Meissen porcelain groups that the Duveens had been buying for about $10,000 dropped to about $750 — but the gallery was able to sustain prices by aggressively pushing material to its deep-pocketed clientele.

Once Duveen was dead, and there was no one with the means or incentive to continue to prop up these markets, however, things quickly went south.

The book stops short of discussing this decline, but the documentation is available for anyone with a login to the New York Times’ archive.

Take Whitemarsh Hall, which the Duveens decorated inside and out. “Starting in 1932, Mr. Stotesbury suffered financial reverses,” reads the article “Whitemarsh Hall: A Palace in Ruin,” from 1978. “Eva Stotesbury sold her jewelry and the art and furniture collections, realizing about 10 cents on the dollar.”

Seven years before, the Times published a similar post-mortem for Dodge’s home. Dodge’s trust fund had stayed intact, but her heirs had neither the interest, nor apparently, the funds, to keep her Duveen-styled life intact.

“Who can afford to keep up a place like that?” asked one of Dodge’s great-granddaughters-in-law. “It’s ridiculous.”