From The Federalist: Scheming Guardians Of Taste

My latest for The Federalist is out this morning, reviewing the superb new book, “Duveen Brothers and the Market for Decorative Arts, 1880-1940,” by the Frick Collection’s Charlotte Vignon, Ph.D. While a very readable survey of the business practices of the Duveens, the most powerful art and antiques dealers in America and Europe during the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, this is a dense, heavily footnoted work which, as a work of painstaking scholarship and attention to detail, should be applauded on its own terms. Dr. Vignon must have spent countless hours going through hundreds of pages of correspondence, ledgers, invoices, and receipts to present us with an overview of how one company came to dominate the art world a century ago, although she is too good of an historian to impose her own value judgments on either the Duveens or their famous clients, such as the Hearsts, Morgans, the Rockefellers.

Ultimately this detachment is very much to Dr. Vignon’s credit, rather than otherwise, for the recounted actions of the buyers, sellers, and supporting characters, and the data that she uncovered as part of her research, all paint a picture that speaks for itself. This is a classic tale of how the supply and demand needs of market forces, in the pursuit of scarce, valuable resources, are often met in ways that are not always, to say the least, above board. If you’re ready for a deeper dive into how many of the beautiful things that you see in American museums or historic homes ended up where they are, then this book absolutely needs to go onto your reading list.

“Duveen Brothers and the Market for Decorative Arts, 1880-1940,” by Charlotte Vignon, Ph.D., is published by Giles, Ltd., and is out now in hardback.

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