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Art of The Deal Part 2 - Sir Joseph Duveen

Sir Joseph Duveen

Who was Sir Joseph Duveen?

Joseph Duveen was a British art dealer who ran his family gallery firm The Duveen Brothers. He is seen as one of, or if not THE greatest dealer in history

What group of Artist did he promote?

Old Master Paintings from the European greats. Duveen was well known for the quality of art work which he was able to get his hands on!

Where did he operate?

He was based in New York, but his father ran the Duveen Brother’s gallery in London meaning they had an advantage in being present on both sides of the Atlantic and right in the heart of both of the world’s art market centres.

What did he do that was so influential?

SO MANY REASONS that I kind of do not know where to begin, but, keeping it brief he employed techniques within his dealing practise which were new, revolutionary and made clients pay attention.

Some of these include:

1. Top quality & Top Provenance

Duveen catered to America’s new uber-wealthy from railway tycoons to millionaire bankers. He identified quickly that America’s wealth ‘princes’ were obsessed with the courts and kings of Europe and how they used art to cement their status. Duveen, of course, was only to happy to get his hands-on works which use to belong to the Kings and Queens of Europe’s old courts to help them achieve their dream!

2. Brought in V.I.P treatment in the artwork

Dinners, private views, bottles of champagne, flowers, boxes at the opera, hotel suite upgrades – you name it, Duveen did it.

3. Sent works to a client’s homes

This was a classic Duveen technique which the dealer found more often than not to result in a sale! Duveen would call a client up declaring he has a new work which they ‘absolutely needed to see’ and would sent it over to their apartment to view the work.

Note – he normally made the call when the piece was already half way there and the client had no option but to accept the work.

Once it was in their space however, 9 times out of 10, it was a sale!

4. Exclusive Access

Another CLASSIC Duveen move! He would show clients works, make them fall in love with the work and then say it was reserved for another wealthier client who was willing to pay above the asking price – which resulted in the client he was currently showing the work to offer an even more over the top price for the work. This was known in the art world as paying a ‘Duveen Price’ for an art work!


YIP – you read this correctly. HE SPIED ON HIS CLIENTS!

He had members of wealth patron’s household staff on his payroll who would tell him where his clients would be so he could orchestrate ‘accidental’ run ins with them or so he could send bottles of champagne to their tables or ensure flowers from the dealer were in their hotel rooms upon their arrival!

5. Engagement with the media

Another technique which set Duveen apart from the crowd! Duveen would call up the New York press and tell them not only what painting was sold he would reveal the price and name of the client too! This even on occasion made front page news!

This is really different to today with all the secrecy of the art world, but, then it was a mark of status that you could spend money like that. It also showed buyers of art they had competition to obtain the best works available by Duveen.

How did he select the artists he would show?

Duveen is part of what is considered ‘The Great Art Drain of Europe’ due to the fact he was catering to the new wealthy of America who were obsessed with the art collections of Europe’s great rulers!

Duveen’s first biographer Samuel Behrman, claims that the reasons for this was “while the American millionaires of the Duveen Era could not become lords and ladies, they could buy the family portraits and other works of art that had…this strengthen their feeling of identification and equality with British nobility and with the great rulers of the merchant princes of the Renaissance.”[1]

Duveen used this to his advantage. By presenting a client with a full history of a painting, it enabled him to work his charm and create momentum behind the work, inevitably leading to a purchase.

However - his techniques in provenance have been questioned, “many of Duveen’s works, appeared the names of kings and the mistresses of kings: Charles I of England, Francis I of France, one or another Louise, Madame Du Berry, Madame Du Pompadour.”, Duveen’s provenance for most was proof that the buyer had acquired themselves an eternal place in history.

For these newly super rich, their names were now too written alongside those of historical grand noble men and women of the past, and would remain there, long after they had gone.

Duveen was not just selling paintings, he was selling immortality!

This is how he chose what to show and sell.

Anything we should know about him – but we don’t?

His relationship with the media and press eventually resulted in the reporting of art in the papers becoming a weekly, if not daily, occurrence which was unheard of at the time! He also paid press to inform him of where a new potential client could be so he could try and make sure he could arrange tables at restaurants next to them or hotel rooms beside them.

So there was good and bad sides to it.

Does he have a good reputation in the art world?

Yes and no!

He is one of these characters who was incredibly respected across the globe. His work is still far reaching today even if the dealership does not exist anymore but he was also no stranger to the court room and causing drama in the press. BUT he was loyal to his clients and his clients were loyal to him.


In 1910, the Revenue Act of 1897 was abolished, lifting the 20% tax charge on imported art. Duveen’s firm however, had been avoiding this tax for years, as Duveen’s Uncle Henry had been appointed chief appraiser of imported art by the US government and had been valuing all items sent by the Duveen firm to be almost worthless in comparison to rival firms. Duveen’s clients were of course aware of this, as it added an additional appeal to buying through the firm. Through a fatal mistake, the whistle was blown on the company’s operation, and after several arrests, the US government presented the Duveen Brothers with a $10 million tax back payment, and the likelihood of jail sentences for all directors.

Banker J. P. Morgan, a good client of Duveen, is the hero of this story!

Morgan, alarmed by his friend’s situation, manipulated his powerful connections in the finance world to not only reduce the firm’s payment to $1.2 million, but made sure that instead of jail sentences, each board member paid a mere $10,000 fine. Such financial favors were returned in the crash of 1929, when the firm kept selected favored collections for clients in storage, so they would not be seized by the government; allowing clients to re-obtain them when financial situations had improved. Duveen even bought back paintings from clients who were truly struggling, and even paid ‘Duveen prices’ for them.

When did he become a knight (Sir Joseph Duveen)?

He was knighted in 1919 for his services to the arts and his philanthropy in the art world. His biggest contributions came in a donation to Tate Britain for a new display wing which we now know as the Duveen Gallery and for footing the bill for a new gallery at the British Museum - which is now home to the Elgin Marbles – also known as the Duveen Gallery!

It doesn’t stop there - he was made a Baronet of Millbank in the City of Westminster in 1927 and raised to the peerage as Baron Duveen of Millbank in the City of Westminster on 3 February 1933.

Does Duveen have any UK connections to museum and gallery scene if he operated in New York?

Duveen donated a lot of money to museums and galleries in the UK as mentioned above. He also had a London brand of the ‘Duveen Brothers’ dealership which allowed him to send works from London to New York within a few days.

He also encouraged his wealth British clients to donate works to museums and galleries upon their death.

Did Duveen every work with museums in the US?

Duveen was INCREDIBLE at encouraging his clients to donate their collections upon their death to national museums across America. For Duveen’s clients, it was the ultimate win win! Pleasure of a European masterpiece in their own home during their life and by donating their works to a museum it ensures immortality after their death!

It’s believed that 1/3 of Renaissance paintings are now in American collections. 75% of these are believed to be handled by Duveen – so yeah, he had a massive impact!

As a dealer, how has he affected how the art world works today?

He is arguably the dealer who brought in branding to the art world with the idea you were not just buying a painting, you were buying a ‘Duveen’. He was known for quality and loyalty to his clients. This is why they kept coming back.

It might seem strange with all the designer clothing labels we have now, but being able to buy a Duveen was a status thing. His works were extraordinarily expensive and even being able to purchase one was a mark of great wealth!

Where can I find out more about him?

There are literally LOADS of books written on Duveen – one of my favourites is ‘The American Leonardo’ which paints a very good picture of who he was as a dealer, friend, family man and patron. I could not put it down!

Jo McLaughlin August 2020


I’ve tried to keep this blog as short as possible but it’s really hard when there is so much to say about this man. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.

Personally, Duveen is a bit of a hero of mine. He was ballsy.

He was a little mad.


And in my opinion, it’s completely justified that he is considered the greatest art dealer that ever lived.



[1] Behrman, S.N. Duveen: The Story of the Most Spectacular Art Dealer of All Time, (Daunt Books, 1953) pg.82.

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