Rogues' Gallery: A History of Art and its Dealers

Nicholas Penny writes:

As we are reminded in Rogues’ Gallery, Philip Hook’s survey of prominent art dealers from the Renaissance to today, the equivalents of Simon de Pury’s ‘overlords’ and ‘titans’ [described in his book The Auctioneer] were keen purchasers of very expensive contemporary art in the 19th century, when there was no shortage of Old Masters. The dominance of the Old Masters came about at the end of the century and lasted for more than fifty years. It was engineered by several extraordinarily persuasive dealers, most notably Joseph Duveen, who ensured that some of the richest men in the US – Henry Clay Frick, Henry Huntington, Joseph Widener and Andrew Mellon among them – employed only two types of contemporary artist (often recommended by Duveen himself): the conservative decorator and the conservative architect. They provided appropriate settings for Bellini and Botticelli among the tapestries and old enamels, and for Rembrandt and Hobbema, and portraits by Reynolds and Romney, alongside the finest French 18th-century furniture, Ming and Qing porcelain, and Persian rugs. How they managed to focus the wealthiest class of collector on a carefully selected range of highly esteemed old paintings, objets d’art and furniture is not entirely clear. The reaction against the idea that new money is more comfortable with new art may have helped. If the self-made man in 1870 was expected to buy Millais or Millet, their still wealthier successors (characterised by Hook as ‘rough-hewn moguls’) would be tempted into a world of more durable as well as princely taste – ‘princely’, because princes had a large supply of such works. Duveen, as well as Knoedler and the Wildensteins (each firm active in London, Paris and New York), were able to assure their clients that they were acquiring works of museum quality.

(LRB 14 December 2017)

Other Titles of Interest