“This boy is a genius, but he will drive me crazy.” – Henry Duveen
I recently finished reading S. N Behrman’s biography on Joseph Duveen (1869–1939), one of the most influential art dealers of the 20th century. Below are six of my favourite anecdotes from the biography on entrepreneurship and wit, which I hope you will also find entertaining.
Though Duveen had the lucky fortune of being born into a family of successful antique traders – from whom he inherited a network of astronomically wealthy customers by the time his career started – he proved himself uniquely persuasive, controversial and opportunistic. The quotes here are not directly transcribed, but I have included the page numbers in case you want to find it for yourself.
1. Know your target audience:
Once, when he was told that Edsel Ford was buying pictures, and asked by he didn’t pay some attention to him, Duveen said: “He’s not ready for me yet. Let him go on buying. Some day he’ll be big enough for me.” (p.35)
2. Let your customers feel they brought more than they paid for:
He more than once asked a prospective client, “Do you realise that the only thing you can spend a hundred thousand dollars on without incurring an obligation to spend a great deal more for its upkeep is a picture? Once you’ve brought it, it costs you only a few hundred dollars every fifteen years for cleaning.” (p.80)
3. Make modest customers feel important, they may not be modest after all:
One day, a stocky gentleman accompanied by his wife walked into the shop in Oxford Street. They looked like a country couple dressed up for a visit to the city. They asked to see some screens. Joseph Joel [father of Joseph Duveen] had recently had several made up of fine old Spanish leather. The lady, in ecstasy, bought one screen after another.
As the sales mounted, the elder Duveen whispered to his son to find out quickly who these people were. Joseph went into consultation with their coachman – an early instance of his lifelong practice of picking up useful intelligence from servants. He wrote the customers’ name on a slip of paper, and handed it to his father.
“You may think it strange, Mr Duveen, that I am buying so many screens,” the woman was saying just then.
“Not at all, Lady Guinness,” replied the proprietor. “You have many fine homes, and you are quite right to supply them with screens.”
With the delight of anonymity welcoming recognition, Lady Guinness beamed at her husband. “You see, Edward,” she said. “Mr Duveen knows who we are!” (p.59)
4. Maintain your standards, even if it means losing a sale:
“What other pictures do you own?” Duveen asked, finally.
The Californian client admitted that he had none of any importance.
“I can’t possibly sell a Rembrandt to a man who owns no other pictures,” said Duveen. “The Rembrandt would be lonely.” (p.100)
5. Prefabricate coincidences:
On a night in 1916, Duveen noticed in his host, Henry Clay Frick, an air at once abstracted and expectant. He knew there was something in the wind, because Frick, always laconic, on this occasion faded out completely. He finally drew from his host the fact that he was on the trail of a really great picture, the name of which he refused to disclose. Duveen went home and pondered. To allow Frick to buy a great picture through anyone else was unthinkable.
Through the underground of the trade, Duveen found out a few days later that Sir Audley Dallas Neeld was about to sell Gainsborough’s Mall in St James’s Park to rival dealer Knoedler’s. Obviously, this was the picture Frick had in mind. Duveen told Sir Audley that he was prepared to outbid everyone else for the picture and got it for $300,000.
The next time he dined with Frick, he found his host depressed. “I’ve lost that picture,” Frick told Duveen.
“Why, Mr Frick,” Duveen said. “I bought that picture. When you want a great picture, you must come to me, because, you know, I get the first chance at all of them. You shall have the Gainsborough. Now, Mr Frick,” he said magnanimously. “You can send it to Knoedler’s to be framed.” (pp.45-46)
6. When all else fails, respond with humour to criticism:
An American lady once protested that the Renaissance painting of a girl he was trying to sell her had obviously been restored. “My dear Madam,” Duveen said. “If you were as old as this young girl, you would have to be restored, too.” (p.163)
Book credit: Duveen: The Story of the Most Spectacular Art Dealer of All Time, by S. N Behrman. London : Daunt Books, 2014
I'd be interested to read and compare other books about art dealers, such as Agnew, Knoedler, Durand-Ruel and Gimpel (in fact I've been trying to get my hands on Gimpel's Diary of an Art Dealer for while now). If you can recommend any others, please leave a comment below - many thanks!