Friday, July 14, 2023

Train in Duveen


The Gray Market Weekly #383: Train in Duveen

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Your scribe's copy of S.N. Behrman’s Duveen. Photo by the Gray Market.



Seven days in the evolving business of fine art

This week, the past isn’t through with us…


Few things help put the present-day art market in perspective more keenly than studying key figures from the art market’s past. After reading S.N. Behrman’s biography of the bravura early 20th century art dealer Joseph Duveen over the past few weeks, I’m struck by the ways that a few of Duveen’s signature strategies show what has changed and what has stayed eerily similar about the trade in the 84 years since his death. The split is instructive. It shows that while some key aspects of any era’s art sales are grounded in mutable market conditions, much of it comes down to human psychology, which is all but guaranteed to endure not just from decade to decade but from century to century.

Who was Joseph Duveen? The question enlivened not only Behrman’s 1951 book (which is titled simply Duveen) but several others written to chronicle his life and career in the family business of selling increasingly fine things to increasingly fine people. In just two generations, the Duveen patriarchs progressed from dealing Delft tiles and furniture to window shoppers at an overstuffed storefront in the British port city of Hull, to brokering the sales of the most prized artworks on the planet to British royalty and the American robber-barons whose names still adorn some of the most august cultural institutions in the U.S.

Although Duveen’s father, Joseph Joel Duveen, and his uncle, Henry Duveen, deserve real credit for the rise of the family business, neither of them ever so much as dabbled in selling paintings. It was their son and nephew who pushed the Duveens headlong into the market for fine artworks. After his father and uncle died, Joseph took control of the family business and supercharged it into immortality, becoming the primary (if not the exclusive) dealer to the steel magnate Henry Clay Frick, Arabella Huntington (who, in an unorthodox turn, married both the railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington and, after his death, his nephew and successor, Henry E. Huntington, founder of the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens), and the banker and industrialist Andrew W. Mellon, to name just a few.

Recounting how Duveen did this is where the real fun begins. He created an international network of informants by doling out cash and kind words to the butlers, valets, housekeepers, ship crewmen, and other support staff to as many of the world’s wealthiest individuals as he could manage. He accused rivals of selling forgeries that he knew to be genuine purely because of the damage it would do to their client relations, even if it meant Duveen himself would be dragged into court with a losing case. He sometimes bought works that he believed were beneath his collectors (including then-contemporary pieces by the likes of Monet) for the express purpose of burying them in his gallery’s basement, minimizing the odds that his clients would ever see and potentially thrill to anything other than his Old Masters.

In fact, one of Duveen’s signatures was to channel this last tactic into an even more audacious form. It was nothing short of a monopoly mindset. Here’s Behrman on this point: 

Professor C.M. Bowra of Oxford has said that Duveen was “the most symbolic figure of the twenties.” Certainly Duveen was a man of his time. It was a time of monopoly, and Duveen outmonopolized the monopolists who were among his biggest clients. In some people, the impulse to own everything appears to be congenital. Beyond the first victories, the horizons widen; they have to control not only the main stream but its tributaries. The impulse becomes a drive that demands the extermination not only of rivals but of potential rivals—a refusal to allow them to live, or even to be born. This temperament is not confined to businessmen. Some artists, scholars, and professional philosophers have it, and even, frozen in the dicta of ideology, some humanitarians; once you’ve palmed truth, it becomes logical to destroy those who don’t share it… Duveen’s career was dominated by this monopolistic drive.  

First off, what a paragraph! More importantly, though, it’s important to understand how Duveen acted on this impulse. Strategically, tactically, and financially, he would go to extraordinary lengths to instill in his clients that they could only get the very best works through him, and only when he determined they were ready for them. He did this most often by buying everything he considered to be of real quality before anyone else could manage to do it. Hyper-aware thanks to his web of informants, he bought works privately that his competitors didn’t even know were on the market. He bought pieces at auction, winning bidding war after bidding war. He bought entire collections in bulk even when he was only interested in a small subset of the inventory. 

Duveen worked for and against himself on this front by doing one thing over and over throughout his career: paying the highest prices he possibly could. Although Duveen had been generating sales and raising hell in equally notable proportions within the family business since several years earlier, Behrman contends that Duveen’s true introduction to art dealing came in 1901, when he bought his first painting, John Hoppner’s Lady Louisa Manners, for what was then the highest price ever paid for an artwork at a British auction: $70,250. He broke through that ceiling again and again over the next 38 years, and he did so entirely by design. 

Most telling of all, Duveen was known to bid things up even when he was only competing against himself. Early in the book, Behrman recounts how he once asked a minor noble to name her price for a particular artwork, then balked at how low the number was when she complied. He only agreed to buy the work for a multiple of her price. 

This might sound like idiocy. In reality, it was cunning. Among Duveen’s many hall of fame quotes about art dealing, none is more memorable to me than “When you pay high for the priceless, you’re getting it cheap.” This would scan as self-aggrandizing if not for the fact that he managed to get the richest people on the planet to believe it. Here’s Behrman again:

How did it come about that the great money men of that era gradually came to accept Duveen’s simple, unworldly view that art was more important than money? One theory is that Duveen had inculcated into them that art was priceless and that when you pay for the infinite with the finite, you are indeed getting it for a bargain. Perhaps it was for this reason that they felt better when they paid a lot. It gave them the assurance of acquiring genuineness, rarity, uniqueness. 

Behrman follows this assertion with another art market anecdote from the Gilded Age, this time concerning second-generation American Joseph Widener, the heir to a trolley fortune and one of the eventual founding benefactors of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.:

A lesser dealer had a Rossellino bust for which he had paid $22,000. Joseph E. Widener went in to look at it. The dealer needed money and offered it for $25,000, thinking to tempt Widener into a quick purchase. The moderateness of the price was fatal. “Find me a better one,” Widener said. Duveen would have asked a quarter of a million, and got it. 

It’s possible that no one in art-dealing history has weaponized high prices as deftly as Duveen. It wasn’t just that he found a way to finance such knee-buckling deals for individual artworks and entire collections; it was that he marketed his spending so that everyone with at least a passing interest would associate his name with the most valuable artwork on earth. Duveen even regularly tantalized the American press into publishing not only what his most recent major acquisition abroad was but how much it had cost him to get it––a fact that I can’t wait to mention to the next living dealer who scolds me for being gauche enough to ask about prices at an art fair.

It’s between Duveen’s hunger for monopoly and his genius for price psychology that we can triangulate the present-day art market. Although the trade is still a niche one in 2023, its scale looks galactic compared to the early 20th century. 

Duveen’s central insight at the time was that almost no one with means in the U.S. was using those means to buy great artwork, a market inefficiency memorialized in his quip, “Europe has a great deal of art, and America has a great deal of money.” Implied in this matter-of-fact statement is that there was almost no one else who had recognized the potential value of correcting the mismatch. (I say “almost” because the only rival mentioned multiple times in Behrman’s book is Knoedler & Co., and in Behrman’s telling, Duveen was nearly undefeated against them.) Even the most jaded observer of the 21st century art trade has to admit that we’re well past a point where a single dealer could corner the market on a budding national superpower.

Duveen’s ambitions were also aided by the fact that there was only one genre and region of artwork considered worth paying top dollar for: European Old Masters. In comparison, it sounds like a utopia of choice to have five global mega-galleries and dozens of slightly lesser blue-chip dealers promoting an international array of living artists and estates with equal fervor, to say nothing of the auction houses and private sellers reaching deeper into the past for more high-end opportunities. 

That said, Duveen’s insight about the mesmeric quality of a sky-high price on wealthy buyers is evergreen, at least when it comes to artwork and other subjective luxuries. Just as people tend to think cheap wine tastes markedly better if they’re told it’s more expensive, they also tend to think that artwork looks better (and has more meaning) if they know it was extremely costly. Despite all the scholarship and connoisseurship available, at some level we’re all just making arguments to back up our innate preferences within categories where there are no verifiable measures of quality. In this land of intuition and guesswork, price is still a signal that nearly everyone responds to in the same way. We can’t help it. It’s just the way our lizard brains are wired. And it won’t be any different in 2201 than it was in 1901, when Duveen set his first auction record.

This doesn’t mean that every rising art dealer can or should slap a million-dollar price tag on every piece in their inventory. It doesn’t even mean that they can or should pay high for the priceless—even if, like Duveen, a combination of favorable circumstance and wily maneuvering has put them in a position to secure the financing. But it is a reminder that, for a certain class of buyer looking for either incredible luxury or a taste of transcendence, it’s wrong to say that price means nothing. In fact, it means everything. 


That’s all for this week. ‘Til next time, remember: we’re always juggling what’s changing and what’s staying the same. But the only chance to do it well is to be honest with ourselves about which is which.

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Strawberries in Pimm’s


“Strawberries in Pimm’s”: Fourth Round at Wimbledon
Krithika Varagur

“As for dinner, there were three options at the closest food court: BRITISH, GRILL, and WORLD.”

“Strawberries in Pimm’s”: Fourth Round at Wimbledon




Hangovers announced themselves on the wan faces on the District line to SW19 on the first Sunday of Wimbledon. Maybe I was projecting. It was a shame, people noted in low tones, that all the British players were now out. A pair of men splitting a salmon-colored broadsheet wondered which BBC presenter was at the center of a recent grooming scandal. “Last night was a proper, proper … if you saw the amount of tequila we were putting away,” said one handsome man, sitting between two heavily made-up girls. All of us filed out, in no particular rush, at Southfields. I went into Costa for an iced Americano before my friend arrived. 

“Careful, dear,” tutted an elderly woman, gesturing to my wide-open tote, the only bag I had in London. “I have no spatial awareness at all,” I admitted, surveying some almonds, a packable quilted jacket, and a copy of Persuasion, all ripe for the picking. “It’s not a rough crowd, of course,” she said, adjusting a georgette shawl, that was the same pearl color as her fluffy hair. “These days, you just never know …” She trailed off. We’d realized, I think simultaneously, that we were in our first queue of the day at Wimbledon, which isn’t just the world’s oldest tennis tournament but a pageant of exuberant restraint, where orderly lines and enclosures have the quality of rites. 

Louis arrived, wearing a gray wool suit, and we submitted ourselves to the flow of the crowd. A specter was haunting the weekend outfits—the specter of the Italian player Jannik Sinner’s huge Gucci duffel bag. Logomania was back, all around us: Goyard and Chanel bags, giant plastic Prada sunglasses, even several pairs of those Obama-era Tory Burch medallion flats. I complimented the sturdy unmarked sweater of a teacher from Somerset, who had, in recent years, become both a Wimbledon regular and a self-published author of over two dozen books on the pedagogy of drama. “I was actually going to wear my jumper printed with strawberries,” she said, “but we had a mishap with the dog this morning.”

At the corporate suite that housed our tickets, I asked a three-time seasonal employee if he’d ever encountered misbehavior at Wimbledon. Not really, he said. Had anyone ever, like, passed out? No. Had he ever heard an ambulance called? He jogged his memory for a moment, but also no. “I think,” he conjectured, “that people just sip on their drinks all day, but it’s a long day, so they end up absolutely fine.”  

There was time to kill before the first match, which is why I found myself at the IBM Experience booth, contemplating its invitation to “raise the game with AI.” “Do you want to try it?” a ponytailed employee asked me. “Sure,” I said. She told me I could press a numbered button to replay clips from last year’s matches and commentate on a headset, just like they do on TV. 

“Why?” I asked her. She smiled brightly. 

“Who’s going to hear this?” I asked.

“It goes … into the system,” she said. 

I asked her how AI improves tennis commentary.

“It helps us pick out the best parts of a match,” she said. “Really, it’s all on the website. Wimbledon dot com.”  

I selected a clip from last year’s Kyrgios-Djokovic matchup. “Well,” I ventured, toward the end of my allotted thirty seconds, “it’s anyone’s game.” I later learned that I had done my part for their large language model. 

The first Centre Court matchup that day was between the Russian Andrey Rublev (the world number seven) and the Kazakh Alexander Bublik (number twenty-six). “… like the most famous painter in Russia,” explained a man walking behind us, presumably about the Tarkovsky biopic indelibly evoked, in some quarters, by Rublev’s name. “Medieval Russia.” Our seats were halfway up the stands, facing the umpire. The court is smaller than you’d think; you can see puffs of white dust come loose when a ball hits a line with force. We watched the game mostly in pin-drop silence, but after exceptional shots or rallies, the crowd indulged in light cheering for “Sasha” and/or Andrey. (Wimbledon spectators’ sympathies lie less with underdogs than with whoever’s up at any given moment.) Last year, Russian and Belarussian players were banned from Wimbledon, but this year, only Russian and Belarussian flags and paraphernalia were. 

They were still neck and neck when my phone vibrated with the alarm I’d set for afternoon tea. Back at the corporate suite, people were crowded around the television playing the Ashes, the Test cricket series between England and Australia. (The first-ever Wimbledon, in 1877, had a two-day break to avoid clashing with the Eton-Harrow cricket match.) England was poised to turn the tide by winning game three of five; they were two runs away, then one, and it was over: “That’ll do it,” “Oh thank God,” “That’s a relief.”  

“I wish we could have been there,” said a dark-haired woman near me. “I mean, of course, this is great too,” she said, noting our current setting. What would she have done if she’d been invited to attend the Ashes and Wimbledon on the exact same day, I asked her. “Oh gosh, well, there’s just something about Headingley,” she said, of the Leeds suburb where that day’s match took place. I later learned that she was a professional cricket player with a Wikipedia page. “Do you think that Test cricket is on its last legs?” I asked Louis, recalling a long disquisition on the subject by my dad. “No chance,” said a short, besuited man with a Pimm’s Cup in each hand. “We don’t give up our traditions that easily, here in England.” 

Two scones later, we were back in our seats to watch Rublev win in the fifth set. “They’re saying it’s one of the best-ever shots at Wimbledon,” said the man in the tall, well-dressed millennial couple next to me. He immediately pulled up a video replaying the penultimate point, which Rublev was describing, in a postgame interview happening below us, as “the most lucky shot ever.” 

I set off to explore the grounds, which were part white-collar office park and part imperial palace gardens. The yellow-tile leaderboards showed that the Canadian player and occasional white rapper Denis Shapovalov had just been knocked out in a major upset. On court eight, two teen girls were duking it out during the hottest part of the day. A local tennis coach, leaning over a purple garbage can, explained that they mow the ryegrass courts to precisely eight millimeters every morning. But their famous “bounce,” he said, was critically endangered. “Used to be you’d see a lot of serve and volley, serve and volley,” when the balls would come fast and low. That “classic Wimbledon” gameplay has been displaced by longer rallies of the modern game. He had helped train some of the ball kids, whom I watched at close range, mesmerized by their identical striped polos, their whole heads turning left and right with each hit, and how they fed fresh balls, elbows unbent and arms extended at forty-five degrees. Like much else here, I felt that the Victorians would have loved these seen and unheard children.   

Though the clouds had burned off and we were all crisping under direct sunlight, Wimbledon’s promise of perfect order seemed to hold: babies weren’t crying, couples weren’t fighting. I never saw anyone reach for sunscreen. I did find myself thinking more and more about one of my favorite videos, a Monty Python sketch where Wimbledon contestants are trounced by an anthropomorphic blancmange. I might, I realized, want another snack.

In yet another line, this one for strawberries and cream, a man from Bristol wearing performance sunglasses told me it had been just about twenty-four hours since he and his friends had set up tents in yesterday’s ticket queue. “Hardly roughing it,” he said, given the Deliveroo coverage, and even, if you were into that sort of thing, day passes to a gym near the campsite. (He wasn’t.) “There’s strawberries and cream, and then there are strawberries in Pimm’s,” a girl was explaining to her sister, by the row of cashiers. I thought about T. S. Eliot’s vaguely right-wing list of characteristic elements of English culture: “Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar.”

I stopped by the gift shop, where almost everyone looked like a potential employee, due to all the lanyards and commemorative gear. “Yellow! Yellow?” pleaded one mother, clutching an oversize novelty tennis ball—albeit a hot pink one—to a reedy blond man, until he admitted, finally, “I don’t work here.” I suspected there would be even better AC at the free tennis museum downstairs, where most of the other refugees were the parents of small children. At a “reaction station,” a father coached his two young daughters, in tulle dresses, toward excellence in a game that resembled whac-a-mole: 

“Zoe! Mia. Mia! Come on. Zoe!” 

She missed.

“No it’s fine. It’s fine.”  

I sought out a to-go drink, a gin and tonic in a reusable plastic cup that said “I live at Wimbledon.” “Some people come here and don’t even watch the tennis,” said the bartender, a cherubic art student from the north of England. “They just sit here and make deals all day. But that’s more of a weekday crowd.”  

We watched Iga Świątek play Belinda Bencic on Henman Hill, which had become very pleasant in the pink and orange part of the day. There were hours of tennis left, but the families clustered on blankets (and in one instance on a prayer rug) were already discussing routes home in minute detail. British people, noted Louis, are terrified of getting stuck somewhere. As for dinner, there were three options at the closest food court: BRITISH, GRILL, and WORLD. I chose WORLD.

“When did I last drink water?” a girl with bleached-blond hair asked her friends, around the tables where we all ate nondescript wraps standing up. “I think on the tube this morning. But then I had two espressos. Do you think that cancels it out?”

We took our seats one last time for the headliner, reigning world champion Novak Djokovic. The retractable roof, which was the futuristic white of a Calatrava bridge, shuttered over us. We also had some new rowmates, who were engaged in a conversation so animated that it visibly stressed out my British friend.  

“But you are so American,” said a vivacious blond woman in her thirties, to the shy young man next to her. “No one could be more American than you.” He squirmed. “I learned English fourteen years ago, by watching old Hollywood movies,” she told him, in an implacable accent, as the first set progressed. The young professional nodded. “I used to live in Battersea, but I got a divorce. Now I live in Surrey. Do you know Surrey?” He did not. “But you must be a big deal,” she pressed, unleashing a dazzling smile on the timid young man. “Just a family friend who had tickets …” he offered, staring at the floor. “You are so cute,” she told him. “So charming, so bubbly.” 

Hubert Hurkacz was making Djokovic fight for every point, and the first two sets both ended in tiebreaks. It was spectacular tennis, and then we had to go home. There’s an eleven o’clock curfew at Wimbledon, out of courtesy for neighbors, and it was already 10:35, though the match would keep going in our absence. (I watched Djokovic win the next afternoon, on my laptop.) We were shepherded into the mild night. The chatter converged on two topics: do you play tennis and we must play tennis. A group of four friends were resolving to change their lives. “I bet you’re really good.” “I’m dreadful.” “He’s dreadful.” “But I’ll start a group chat.” “It’s a shame not to. The weather’s been so good.” “We’ve got to play.” “We’ll play.” 


Krithika Varagur is the author of The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project and an editor of The Drift.