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When is a Titian a repe-Titian?

Part 3: Joe Duveen and Bernard Berenson

The play currently showing in London is called Old Masters, written by Simon Gray and produced by Harold Pinter. In two neatly crafted acts it examines the personalities and relationship between Joseph Duveen - the world’s greatest ever art dealer - and Bernard Berenson - the world’s greatest expert on Italian art. The play focuses on a supposed meeting between them at Berenson’s Villa I Tatti outside Florence in 1937. Joe Duveen was an Englishman, from a modest background, who, from the 1890s onwards, became the accepted go between for the British aristocrats who wished to sell their family treasures and the new American millionaires who wished to acquire them. Duveen was a brilliant showman who knew how to play up to the snobberies and desires of each side and in the process he became extremely rich. Bernard Berenson’s family were penniless Lithuanian refugees who settled in Boston. He was endowed with great charm, ability and a brilliant eye for a picture, and from the 1890s onwards he was the world’s accepted expert on Italian art. His word on who had painted what, was gospel. Duveen loved pictures but was not an expert. Berenson was not an instinctive businessman, but he had a taste for an expensive lifestyle and needed a great deal of money. It was inevitable, therefore, that the two men should get together and form a partnership. Berenson found and authenticated pictures for Duveen. Duveen paid him a share of his firm’s profits. The partnership, although guessed at, was never made public. It also needs to be remembered that these decades were a golden era for dealers. There was a plentiful supply of Old Masters and the international market in them belonged to the dealers not the auction houses. Most transactions were carried out without the glare of today’s publicity and the prices paid were often not disclosed.

The Duveen/Berenson relationship was never an easy one. The smouldering resentments and antagonisms between them finally came to a head in 1937 over a picture called the Allendale Adoration. It is this final breakdown that is the theme of the play. Duveen had acquired an early Venetian picture showing the Adoration of the Shepherds in a landscape, from Lord Allendale, and he wished to sell it to his best and richest client of the moment, Andrew Mellon. To do so, and to obtain the price that he wished, he needed an attribution to Giorgione, the young Venetian genius who died in 1510 at the age of 34. In the play, Duveen arrives at the Villa I Tatti with the picture to obtain Berenson’s blessing on this attribution. (It is, incidentally, a true story in all its essentials). However, Berenson believed it was an early Titian and would not be moved by Duveen’s cajolings, threats, seductive pleadings, or offers of yet more lucrative deals. The problem for Duveen was that Mellon had many Titians and did not want another one. He wanted the rarest of the rare, namely a Giorgione. Mellon therefore did not buy the picture, although the story has a twist in its tail. Berenson later changed his mind and decided that it was by Giorgione, and Duveen sold it to Samuel Kress, the department store magnate who in due course gave it to the National Gallery in Washington that had been founded by Andrew Mellon.

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