by Charlotte Vignon. D Giles Ltd., July 2019. 320p. ill. ISBN 9781911282341 (h/c), $59.95.

Reviewed September 2019
Charlotte DonVito, Auction Catalog Librarian, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, c-donvito@nga.gov

vignonDuveen Brothers and the Market for Decorative Arts, 1880-1940, by Charlotte Vignon, presents a detailed and eminently readable study of the Duveen family and their extraordinary influence in the US art market in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Vignon, curator of decorative arts at the Frick Collection, studied thousands of original documents in the Duveen Brothers records, now publicly available at the Getty Research Institute. The result is not a biography; we learn little about the private lives of Henry and Joseph Joel and their more famous descendant, Sir Joseph Duveen. Rather, Vignon references personal and business correspondence and other documentary sources to map the development of Duveen’s corporate model, and their influence in shaping American moneyed taste for European and Asian styles. Vignon’s book is distinguished also from other more general works on this subject by focusing exclusively on Duveen’s trade in the decorative arts, rather than old masters.

The book is divided into two sections. The first, which will appeal greatly to the general reader, offers a fascinating overview of the landscape of the global art market, including the effect of changes in tariffs and inheritance law, and of the firm’s clever and deliberate business strategies--as well as their later legal troubles. Vignon uses letters and other contemporary reports to illustrate how the Duveens promoted the tastes of the European Belle Epoque to their wealthy American clientele. As they patiently cultivated long-term relationships in the upper echelons of American society, they successfully marketed themselves as art experts, curators, restorers, and interior decorators who staged their inventory with a showman’s flair.

Part two delves into the documented details of the company’s trade in decorative arts. The author painstakingly examines transactions with numerous prominent clients and specific sub-categories of the decorative arts (Chinese porcelain, furniture and objects from eighteenth-century France, and items from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance).These chapters feature descriptions of individual items, collections, and their sale prices, often listed in pounds sterling and US dollars. In contrast to part one, this level of detail might appeal less to the casual reader but will prove invaluable for serious students of the Duveens or the art market during the time period covered.

This book is well written and would be an excellent addition to any art research library. The helpful inclusion of an index, references, a family tree, and biographical entries make it a useful reference work. Unfortunately, the sumptuous subject matter is not well-served by the physical quality of the published work from D Giles. The matte paper and the almost faded, soft-focus appearance of many illustrations do not do justice to the exquisiteness of the Duveen inventory and Charlotte Vignon’s thorough research and elegant prose.