Number 42   May - June 2005


By Keith McDonald

A recent book titled, Duveen A Life In Art by Meryle Secrest,* inspired this article. Her publisher calls it “the first major biography in more than fifty years of the supreme international art dealer of the twentieth century, Joseph Duveen.”

Also contributing to this was an exhibit at the Getty Museum called “The Business of Art” with Mark Henderson as curator. This exhibit featured the principal artists, collectors, and dealers of the twentieth century. Joseph Duveen was clearly the star of all involved.

Joseph Duveen, later Lord Duveen of Millbank, was the master of his trade. Along the way he gravitated from being the master of the “Old Masters” to all things eighteenth-century and French.

His firm began in Europe, but he opened a New York City branch in 1912 on Fifty-Sixth Street close to Arabella Huntington’s home on Fifty-Seventh Street. As he was known to do for desirable clients, he captured the attention of “Madam” as he always deferred to her. Of course, in the process he also gained the attention of the man whom he helped become one of the greatest art collectors in theUnited States and the future husband of Arabella.

So, Henry and Arabella Huntington became two of Duveen’s major clients. After Duveen applied his charms to “Madam,” Arabella devoted herself to collecting art, but with a particular interest in all things eighteenth-century and French. Her home on Fifty-Seventh Street began filling up with art treasures supplied by the quite ample inventories of Duveen, as well as filling up her other four homes, including San Francisco and Paris. Between 1908 and 1917 alone,
Duveen sold the Huntingtons, together, over $21 million in collectibles.

Duveen astutely observed that his most profitable clients would be the emerging rich in the United States buying from the cash-poor owners of long-time European collections.

Besides the Huntingtons, Duveen’s clients included J. P. Morgan, Henry Frick, Samuel Kress, John Rockefeller, Marjorie Merriweather Post, and Andrew Mellon.

Reluctant at first with Duveen, Andrew Mellon became a major collector with the “help” of Duveen. Mellon came to believe that he would rather have Duveen’s opinion than that of any museum official. Mellon claimed that collectibles never looked as good as they did when Duveen was standing in front of them. No detail of a client’s life was too small to deal with in order to facilitate a sale to his most desirable clients. In the case of the Huntingtons, for example, he oversaw the arrangements for their marriage in Paris. He was such a part of Arabella’s life, he even possessed a copy of her will.

But Duveen was also quite capable of preventing a competing dealer from making a sale that he himself would like to make. For example, when a competing dealer had attracted a certain High Church duke with a religious painting, the duke made the mistake of asking Duveen for advice on what he thought about the merits of the painting. Duveen replied, “Very nice, my dear fellow, very nice, but I suppose you are aware those cherubs are homosexual.” So, that deal was killed for Duveen’s competition. But later when the same painting came into Duveen’s hands, the cherubs had then become “straight.”

An interesting story emerges about Joseph Duveen’s ability to deal with Henry Huntington and Andrew Mellon. Duveen offered Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Pinkie to Mellon, but at that time in his life he was secretary of the treasury (1921-1932) and did not want to be known publicity as spending as much money as Pinkie would have required. So, Duveen then offered the painting to Huntington and was accepted. At some point Mellon decided that Pinkie looked exactly like his own daughter and, that, of all the paintings he owned, he coveted Pinkie the most. But, Henry Huntington refused to give up the painting. This would be his last significant art purchase before his death a few months later in May, 1927. Duveen had done his job too well because he found himself in the middle of two special clients in the process of trying to please both.

Duveen then wound up personally escorting the painting Pinkie to Huntington’s San Marino home in January, 1927. Early in the journey, Duveen cabled Huntington with this message: PINKIE ONLY FAIRLY WELL LAST NIGHT CRYING FOR GRANDPA BUT I AM TAKING GREATEST CARE OF HER UNTIL SHE RETURNS HOME.

So, in the end Andrew Mellon lost this likeness of his daughter Ailsa, but ironically his legacy is perpetuated at The Huntington Library to this day with The Huntington receiving funds from the Mellon Foundation and the Mellon Financial Corporation. It was the Mellon funding, by the way, that underwrote the British Watercolor Exhibit An Eye for Beauty at the Boone Gallery. It is a name Mellon might have chosen himself.

But somehow I think that if Andrew Mellon were alive today, he would gladly trade a number of amazing treasures for that one on canvas of Sarah Barrett Mounton, aka Pinkie.

In passing, what if Pinkie had not come to “Grandpa” and the rest of the Huntington collection afterall? Would the Blue Boy travel among the galleries instead with another complementary “young lady?” John Singer Sargent painted complementary to Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy and also to Thomas Lawrence’s Pinkie. Could Sargent’s Portrait of Pauline Astor perhaps be that “young lady?” Hmmm…not unless it could be offered by Lord Joseph Duveen!

*Duveen A Life In Art by Meryle Secrest is available in The Huntington Book Store & More.  Also available is Duveen The Story of the Most Spectacular Art Dealer of All Time by S. N. Behrman.

My special thanks to Jessica Todd Smith, Huntington Curator of American Art.

Keith McDonald, Huntington Research Historian

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