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Reviewed by Simon

A good book review – according to the unwritten rules agreed by the Shiny New Books editors – should be about the book, not simply an essay on the topic with incidental nods towards the text. That is one of the things (in my opinion) that sets blogs and online magazines apart from newspapers. But it is difficult not to make a review of S.N. Behrman’s Duveen (a biography of Joseph Duveen originally published in the New Yorker in 1951, then as a book in 1952) simply a discourse on art dealing. But I will try to balance the two.

I hadn’t heard of Duveen when I started the book and, indeed, had not even remembered that it was a biography until I was a handful of pages in. This is how it opens:

When Joseph Duveen, the most spectacular art dealer of all time, travelled from one to another of his three galleries, in Paris, New York, and London, his business, including a certain amount of his stock-in-trade, travelled with him. His business was highly personal, and during his absence his establishments dozed.

There is a touch of the novelist there, is there not? The casual superlatives, the charismatic leader of enterprise… I was expecting something along the lines of Wolf Mankowitz’s excellent Make Me an Offer. And, indeed, Behrman’s writing style often seems to be drawn from the stable of fiction rather than non-fiction. There isn’t a single footnote throughout, and the anecdotes he tells often make it seem as though he were a fly on the wall of every room Duveen ever entered.

But I should not assume complete knowledge of Duveen, considering I had none. Born in Britain in 1869 to Dutch immigrant parents, he became (to repeat Behrman’s words) ‘the most spectacular art dealer of all time’. His clients were, eventually, drawn almost exclusively from a small group of American millionaires who would afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars demanded by Old Master paintings. But Duveen was not just a businessman; Behrman paints a portrait of a man who was reckless, domineering, endlessly ambitious, and yet somehow affable and sociable.

The details of Duveen’s upbringing and early career are sketched over so lightly that they might as well be non-existent, except for giving the vague idea of being the child of rags-to-riches immigrants giving him a thirst for success. Why he chose art is not clear; he became an expert (of sorts) and something of a connoisseur (although his attributions and restoration techniques have both been the subject of much questioning) but was unquestionably driven by money rather than aesthetic pleasure. This is highlighted by a passage comparing him with his sometime-colleague, the art historian and authenticator Bernard Berenson:

Duveen had the practical man’s contempt for the scholar. ‘Berenson may know what’s authentic, but only I know what will sell,’ Duveen would say, laughing. Or he would say, ‘If I were to follow Berenson, I would have a basementful of wonderful masterpieces that no one would buy.’ From Duveen’s point of view, Berenson had a limitation: he didn’t care in the least what would sell; he was interested solely in what was beautiful. And between Berenson’s aesthetic standards and the standards of Duveen’s American customers there was a considerable gap. Duveen’s principal clients were ageing men, and they liked bright colours, they liked opulence, they liked youth and beauty; they wanted to be cheered up.

Behrman reports Duveen’s basement filled with paintings that were either unsellable (his conservative American clients were reluctant, for instance, to buy portraits of actresses) or bought back from clients to maintain the mystique of ‘a Duveen’ – that is, any painting which had once been sold by him.

And this is where I cannot keep from discussing the role of the art dealer. It seems to be a wholly unnecessary and unaesthetic one; Duveen simply made great amounts of money by being a middle-man. In the doing, he took the great paintings of Europe and sequestered them to private mansions in America. There can be no cultural form as undemocratic as paintings and sculpture. Theatre can be seen by the masses; literature is found in the mass market paperback as authentically as in the first edition. But a Gainsborough is painted once, and – if bought at for an obscene sum by the multimillionaire owner of a chain of five-and-dimes – might never be seen again. (One unexpected bright side to the mid-century hike in death duties is the number of paintings donated to public galleries by dying moguls.) The question of the morality of bigwigs spending fortunes on paintings while their workers were at a pittance is another issue…

Then there is the topic of fakes and misattributions, which seems to have dogged Duveen throughout his career. Behrman writes with obvious relish about the court cases Duveen had to attend – and which he, in turn, seems to have loved causing, always spoiling for a (dignified) fight, and saying whatever came to mind. Any painting sold by another dealer was likely to be labelled a forgery by Duveen, who was deeply possessive of his clients, and often ‘taught them a lesson’ (in Behrman’s words) if they tried to evade his monopoly over them. Indeed, he seems almost despotic at times – but Behrman evidently admired his character, and so it is difficult for the reader to see the whole picture (ahem) or sidestep the party line:

According to Berenson, Duveen himself was an artist of a sort; he got an artist’s pleasure out of the tremendous sales he negotiated, and out of his role as purveyor to the most powerful men in the world.

Despite all the details of his career, you finish Duveen knowing, in fact, very little about the man himself. His wife Elsie is mentioned twice, on consecutive pages, and his daughter Dorothy only once. His catapulting to wealth and influence is not entirely overlooked, but is certainly still something as a mystery as the final page is turned; how did he go from being an ambitious man helping his uncle’s business to having hundreds of thousands of dollars to throw around?

Behrman is more interested in the myth than the man; lists of expensive paintings aid the former, so we are given them (the whole first chapter is a dizzying whirl of pricetags and fame), while the personal life is left curiously incomplete. Ultimately that doesn’t matter, if the reader makes his or her peace with the situation early on. Behrman has written an exhilarating, fascinating portrait of a man – but it is a portrait that shows only one angle. And it does that brilliantly.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.

S.N. Behrman, Duveen (London, Daunt Books, 2014), 978-1907970573 paperback, 236pp.

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