Saturday, 20 February 2021

The Dispersal of the Collection of Rodolphe Kann [II]: Other Perspectives

[The post I had planned to write today has to be postponed until I have some images from a collection in the US, which I had over-optimistically hoped to have received by now. Instead, here is an addendum to last week's post]


One of the books I am reading at present is René Gimpel, Diary of an Art Dealer, translated by by John Rosenberg (London, 1986). René Albert Gimpel (1881-1945) was the son of Clarisse, née Vuitton (of the luggage-making family) and the picture dealer Ernest Gimpel; he married Florence, the youngest sister of Joseph (later Lord) Duveen [Wikipedia]; and was the father of Jean [Wikipedia], the historian and medievalist, perhaps most famous for his book Les Bâtisseurs de cathédrales, 1958, translated as The Cathedral Builders in 1961.

In the previous post I suggested that the sale of the collection of Rodolphe Kann was mainly orchestrated by Nathan Wildenstein and the Duveens, but René's Diary provides a somewhat different perspective.

For the first 300 pages of the book it was not made explicit that René's father, Ernest, had been in business with Nathan Wildenstein (1851-1934), founder of the Wildenstein art-dealing dynasty [Wikipedia], as E. Gimpel & Wildenstein, in New York:


By coincidence, this week I reached November 1925 in the Diary, in which René looks back at his father's old account books. We learn that he set up the business with Nathan in 1902, and died of diptheria on 7 January 1907, aged only 48:
Ernest Gimpel

René continued the business with Nathan Wildrenstein until 1919. He records:
"At the beginning of 1907 we bought with Duveen Brothers the famous Rudolph Kann Collection for 17 million francs. We sold it through that year and 1908, but the prices don’t figure in these books which I have before me. The Altmans, Wideners, Huntingtons, Morgans bought to the tune of millions and millions of francs. It must have sold, all told, for more than 40,000,000."
The first figure looks precise, and if the second is  right, it suggests that the dealers' mark-up was about 140%. This sounds surprisingly modest for Joseph Duveen, who often marked-up his prices for major masterpieces by several hundred percent.
"During those two years I find only two large and beautiful Bouchers which were sold to Berwind for $45,000, and for $30,000 a Gothic statue to Mrs. Blair, a St. Catherine, which is now in the New York museum in the J. P. Morgan Collection. Three-quarters of the Kann Collection was liquidated in two years, but the sale of small pictures and art objects was prolonged and difficult."
It seems that while the Duveens were had considerable fortune selling the Old Master paintings, Gimpel and Wildenstein were having less success.
"During this time the brother, Maurice Kann, died, and we set about buying his collection too, which was smaller in number but superior in quality. This time we preferred to buy the fine canvases at higher prices and leave the rest, which would prove so difficult to liquidate."
Gimpel has clearly got his chronology slightly wrong here, as Maurice had died in 1906, prior to the purchase of the Rodolphe collection in 1907.
"The Duveens made a proposition to me and my partner, that we hand the business over to them, allowing them to buy us out. They were such cumbersome and monopolistic associates that we accepted."
From everything I have read about Joseph Duveen it rings true that he was a 'monopolistic associate' and difficult to work with. He was ruthless in his determination to monopolise the market in the finest Old Master paintings, and an egomanic to the extent that he paid one of his art-dealer brothers an annual fee to trade under only his forename, "Charles", so that no one else in London traded under the name "Duveen".

One of the books about the Duveen family business that I read before the one by Colin Simpson (on which I relied heavily for last week's post), is James Henry Duveen, The Rise of the House of Duveen (London, 1957). James Henry was a nephew of both Joel Duveen and Henry Duveen (i.e. Duveen Brothers), and thus a cousin of Joel's eldest son, the famous Joseph.

James Henry Duveen provides yet another perspective, and some different financial figures from those in Simpson's book and and Gimpel's Diary. He records that in April 1905 Joel summoned him from Liverpool to Monte Carlo to discuss the possible purchase of the collection of Rodolphe Kann. 
"This was equivalent to telling me that the National Gallery was for sale, for the Kann Collection was known to contain the finest masterpieces in pictures, tapestries, old French furnitue, European and Oriental cermaics and other treasures."
They then travelled to Paris to appraise the collection, and were particularly impressed by the Rembrandts:
"This intense judging of eleven Rembrandt pictures had the result of changing Duveen Brothers’ plans. The senior partner overcame all hesitations of the other members of the firm, and within a very short time they arranged with Messrs. Gimpel and Wildenstein that the latter would accept a considerable amount of money in lieu of exercising their option on the pictures. 
Shortly after, the representatives of the Kann family agreed to sell the collection to Duveen Brothers for twenty-three million francs, at that time £920,000, or three million six hundred and eighty thousand dollars. I believe that Messrs. Gimpel and Wildenstein received £80,000 (three hundred and twenty thousand dollars) for their option on the pictures. Unfortunately, as Rodolphe Kann had left no will, difficulties ensued which delayed official delivery to Duveen Brothers for over two years, and it was only on 7th August 1907 that the completion of the transaction was published. By that time a great deal of the collection had already been sold as secretly as possible, but as the Duveens were all rather talkative, news of some of these sales leaked out. For instance, the most famous of the contemporary art experts, Dr. Wilhelm von Bode—the discoverer of the notorious Leonardo da Vinci wax bust of ‘Flora’—knew already in the early summer of 1905 that the great collector, John Pierpont Morgan, the Elder, had become the owner of the magnificent Ghirlandajo portrait of Giovanna Tournabuoni, the lovely picture which my uncle and I had admired so much during that memorable visit to the collection."

So in this account:

  • The Duveens agreed to buy the collection not long after April 1905, just a few months after Rodolphe's death in February that year;
  • Gimpel and Wildenstein received cash in lieu of their option to buy the collection;
  • the price was 23 million francs (more than the 17 million stated by Gimpel), or $3,680,000 (less than the $4million stated by Simpson)
  • while the date of 7 August 1907 for the formalisation of the deal is the same as that stated by Simpson, this account suggests that Pierpont Morgan had taken delivery of at least one painting as early as the summer of 1905, whereas Simpson records that none of the art could be removed from avenue d'Iena until the whole amount was paid.

Where there are discrepancies I am inclined to trust Colin Simpson, since his facts are based on the Duveen archives (now at the Metropolitan Museum), including the secret "X ledger", which recorded the true purchase and sale-prices of paintings, which bore little relation to the prices that were reported to the tax authorities:

Gimpel and J.H. Duveen, in contrast, were more reliant on their memories, and each had a vested personal interest to portray their relatives in a favourable or unfavourable light.

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