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MIKE von JOEL Editor in Chief


...and you thought Tulip Mania was a primitive aberration?

  • By MIKE von JOEL
  • Posted 18.06.2021

It's all in the eye and mind of the beholder. And nowadays in the ear as well – whereby the whisperings of the dealers and auctioneers are a tinnitus hard to avoid.

NEW AUCTION RECORDS, where this or that major painting made many thousands of pounds, are so common that outside the art industry they barely raise a comment. Whilst the same sang-froid might not be said of the extraordinary prices achieved at the Contemporary market sales, there is already a smug acceptance that these excesses are a right and proper evaluation of works by (often) young and living artists.

It is an interesting cultural and philosophical moment when an artist affixes a price tag to a work and introduces it to the world. Theoretically speaking, the local maker of a small show of drawings in a gallery in Leeds is in direct competition with Michelangelo the minute he/she offers that work for sale in the marketplace. It becomes a matter of perceived value and certainly a more complex equation than the old art school adage: there is no such thing as a bad painting – it’s always good to the person who likes it!

Value, economics and wealth is a tangled web and never more so than when combined with the plastic arts. The evolution of money, and monetary ‘tokens’, is a fascinating study over which the experts constantly feud. There is a general agreement that coinage, as we understand it today, was invented in Asia Minor by the Lydians around 640 BC. King Croesus of Lydia introduced coins of true gold, as opposed to amalgams, so successfully that his name is still familiar today. Exchange systems had existed before of course, with the Aztecs using cocoa beans and the Pacific Islanders’ more sophisticated use of cowrie shells. The cowrie emblem appeared on the first examples of paper money in C13th China (as Marco Polo reported enthusiastically in 1275: ‘I tell you that people are glad to take these tokens, because wherever they go in the empire of the great Khan, they can use them to buy and sell as if they were pure gold’) (1)

Roman coinage systems spread everywhere in the wake of their colonisations, but the Emperor Nero had quickly discovered the ease with which the currency could be debased and by AD64 the silver content had decreased to 10%, and via subsequent rulers to 5% – naturally its buying power fell accordingly. Coincidentally, this was a scam not lost on Henry VIII.

‘Economists and financial analysts are exercised by the concept of tradeable goods and their value as a medium of exchange. In economics, there is no such thing as intrinsic value. This is true for the simple reason that value does not reside in the atoms, molecules, chemical composition, or structure of an economic good. It resides, always, in the mind of the individual perceiving the good. That decision determines the value of that economic good, at that particular time, to that unique individual. Once this value became widely recognised, the commodity in question was no longer consumed for any but the most vital purposes. Instead, it was used in exchange. It had become a MONEY.’ (2)

This is an important delineation because it proposes, correctly in the context of art, that value is not what is beheld but rather what is in the eye and mind of the beholder. And there are many apposite examples in the world of art to back this up. Without even deviating into the arena of fakery: the dexterous conjuring of Han van Meegeren; the brilliance of Elmyr de Hory and the flourished knock-offs of Tom Keating, the prime example (and my perennial favourite) is The Man with the Golden Helmet. For many years one of  Rembrandt van Rijn’s very best mid C17th paintings (© the experts).

In 1985, a shocked world (viz. the director’s of Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie) learned that the Rembrandt Research Project [RRP] in Amsterdam had added this public favourite to their irrefutable list of non-authenticated paintings. In the Duveen intoxicated 1920’s over 700 paintings had been credited to the C17th Dutch master, by a more sober 1969 this had been reduced to almost 400. Barely a week after the Man with the Golden Helmet bombshell, Britain’s National Gallery was quietly demoting Scholar in a Lofty Room to the abyss of obscurity – the curator, Christopher Brown, noting it bore a false signature and was most likely by an imitator of Rembrandt. The picture itself looked identical to how it had looked the week before.

The repercussions of the Berlin Gemäldegalerie misfortune were manifest. Overnight a  DM20,000,000 picture became worth DM1,000,000 – without a single fleck of paint on its surface being altered. The effervescent sermons on the picture by acknowledged art world giants – authorities like Jakob Roseberg, Wilhelm Bode and WR Valentiner –  overnight became not worth the paper they were printed on. The fact that here existed a magnificent painting by an unregistered Dutch genius seemed to matter little – it no longer had the cachet of Rembrandt. But what is the cachet of Rembrandt? Is it really any more than a body of superior paintings (of which there are obviously numerous others: see The Man with Golden Helmet); a mythologising through contemporary eyes of a man we actually have limited information about but of whom much has been extrapolated through his range of self portraits? And a romance with C17th Dutch life which seems so immediately familiar by way of Flemish genre painting?

It’s all in the eye and mind of the beholder. And nowadays in the ear as well – whereby the whisperings of the dealers and auctioneers are a tinnitus hard to avoid. The Frick Collection in New York has a ‘Rembrandt’ in the gunsights of the RRP: The Polish Rider of 1655. The Frick is interesting in this context as its origins owe much to the manoeuvrings of Joseph ‘Joe’ Duveen (1869-1939) a former king of the Western art world and of the convenient attribution. Coincidentally of Dutch origin, Joe’s father (Joseph Joel) and uncle Henry had launched Duveen Brothers delftware business in Hull, of all places, with a rapid expansion into London and New York – and also into paintings and furniture. The future Lord Duveen of Millbank thrived in the New York gallery, initially as a junior to his uncle Henry,  rubbing shoulders confidently with Henry’s nouveau riche American industrialist clientele.(3)  By 1907, Joe was in full charge.

‘In 1906, [Joe] acquired three large collections: the Rodolfe Kann, the Maurice Kann, and the Hainauer. In 1927, he bought the Robert H. Benson collection of 114 Italian paintings; three years later, the Dreyfus collection of Italian paintings and sculpture in Paris.’ (4)

Access to archival sources in the 1980s, and perhaps a lessening of reverence to sacred cows, revealed an unholy alliance between Duveen and the scholar Bernard Berenson. The Italian expert secretly received a percentage of the profit on any painting he authenticated for Duveen, as meticulously noted in confidential gallery ledgers. Giorgione’s Portrait of a Man being one example. Sold to Benjamin Altman in 1913, this was a painting in a state of ‘deplorably bad preservation’ according to BB in 1895. Eighteen years later, Berenson finds it in a ‘miraculously fine state’.(5) Duveen used Berenson’s connivance remorselessly. For example: in 1927 Jules Bache bought a Madonna and Child  (for ten times the price paid by Duveen) as by Bellini – the ‘revised’ opinion of Berenson. Today it barely scrapes by as ‘workshop of’ the Italian Master.

Perhaps the most universal aspect of the Duveen story is the dramatic combustion when money and art conjoin. Isabelle Anscombe, reviewing Meryle Secrest’s Duveen/Berenson biographies last year, succinctly assessed the alchemy:

‘The most tantalising question about Duveen is the extent to which he was aware, while befriending and charming his clients, that it was all at best, business, and at worst, a confidence trick. Collectors are curious individuals – although there is no discussion here of their psychology – and dealers are equally so. The way in which a dealer grooms, educates and manipulates a collector should lie at the heart of the biography of the high practitioner of this dark art; and while Secrest does say that Duveen made himself indispensable, encouraging in his clients ‘the kind of helplessness [he] found so appealing and for which he was willing to be endlessly accommodating’, she lacks the courage to draw any conclusions about the potentially abusive nature of the dealer-client relationship.’ (6)

So as the Bankers – and Barons of widget manufacture – bask in the sycophancy and flattery an outlay of a few thousand dollars brings; and the City boys flush with pride as a telephone directory like Modern Art catalogue arrives by special courier on their trading room desk; and the advice to buy ‘must have now’ contemporary art grows to a crescendo – remember  Samuel Johnson’s 1770 advice on re-marriage: it is the triumph of Hope over Experience. So is punting on any runaway commodity market. And stay right away from Dutch Tulip Bulbs!


(1) Source: The Project Gutenburg Ebook: The Travels of Marco Polo

(2)  The Evolution of Money Privateer Market Newsletter 2001

(3) Duveen clients included: Otto Kahn, Jules Bache, H.E. and Arabella Huntington, Andrew Mellon, William Randolph Hearst, John D. Rockefeller Jr., Anna Dodge, S.H. Kress, P.A.B. Widener, Benjamin Altman, Marjorie Meriwether Post, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Henry Clay Frick

(4) Duveen Brothers Records, 1876-1981, The Getty Research Institute Los Angeles, CA
(5) Source: Duveen - A Life in Art  2004;
Being Bernard Berenson: A Biography  1979;
both by Meryle Secrest

(6) Isabelle Anscombe Apollo Magazine 2005

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