World-Class Provenance

I’ve hit the big time! I have joined the ranks of the greatest billionaire collectors of the world. J Pierpont Morgan. John D Rockefeller. J Paul Getty. Henry Clay Frick. Calouste Gulbenkian. William Randolph Hearst. Andrew Mellon. An assortment of Rothschilds. And me.

What gives me the effrontery to claim membership of this illustrious band? Well, I spent £20 on a couple of old plates at a local auction. “Oooh”, I hear you say “They must be worth an absolute fortune!”. Sorry, afraid not. They are worth about what I paid for them, twenty quid.

I should explain. The plates, or saucers, or perhaps shallow dishes, are pictured below. They are similar but not a pair, just 16 centimetres or 6½ inches in diameter, and in terrible condition. Both have multiple chips around the edges and other small areas of glaze loss. One has a hole for suspension drilled right though it.


They are standard bottom-of-the-range Dutch delft ware from the 18th century. As delft plates go, they are not special, not rare, not all that interesting and of no value. I bought them because I happen to love old delft and happen to think that despite all their faults they are extremely pretty. I can’t resist buying old delft if it’s cheap. But if you’re looking for a rare or valuable item, look elsewhere.

That would be the whole story and normally I wouldn’t even start blogging about them because there would be nothing much to write. But these plates aren’t just any old plates. They have opened up a whole fascinating new area of interest for me and have rocketed me into the absolute top echelons of the collecting fraternity.

How? Here’s a clue – a photo of the backs of the plates.

20180922_145133See that each has something dark stuck to it? Look closer and you see that they are the fragmentary remains of small blobs of dark gold wax or lacquer. Closer still, you realise that they have been impressed with a seal, and if you use a magnifying glass or loupe you might just be able to make out parts of an inscription which, when complete, used to read DUVEEN LIVERPOOL.

Duveen. A magical name almost forgotten today, but which at one time resonated through the very highest and most rarefied strata of the collecting community. “The most spectacular art dealer of all time”[1], “the world’s foremost dealer”[2] whose “methods of dealing in artworks largely defined the way that the art market operates today”[3], and “who dominated the international art market in the first half of the 20th century”[4]; “the National Gallery of Art in Washington is in large part there because of Duveen”[5].

OK, so if he’s all that, what’s his seal doing on the back of a couple of nondescript bits of old crockery? It’s a long story, and it might take me more than one blog piece to tell it. I’ll get there eventually.

But before I do, I should let you know why am I so enthralled by the name of Duveen. Two reasons.

The first is that studying the Duveen phenomenon (and, my goodness, what a phenomenon it was!) provides me with some measure of understanding of why and how the world’s greatest art collections were accumulated. This is a particular interest of mine, and it might explain in part why I spend so much of my leisure time wandering around museums, galleries and great houses.

Marble_House,_Newport,_Rhode_Island (1)
The Marble House, Newport RI, home of Alva and William Vanderbilt. Alva engaged Duveen to sell her Gothic collection to the Ringling Brothers, circus magnates, of Sarasota Fl. (CC BY-SA 3.0,

For example, take the summer just past. On our family summer holiday in the USA, I visited four of the extraordinary “summer cottages” built by American millionaires of “the Gilded Age” in Newport Rhode Island (think Vanderbilt), and then went on to New York City to see J P Morgan’s Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Rockefeller, Frick, Morgan again), and the Met’s wonderful outpost at The Cloisters in the Washington Heights (more Rockefeller).

What motivated and inspired these moguls of industry, mostly born into poor families, generally ill-educated, interested only in commerce, tending towards social introversion, to build up fabulous collections of European artworks and to house them in fantasy mansions and chateaux? And then, more often than not, to donate their collections to public museums and galleries?

Answers: ruthless arrivisme, uncontrollable competitiveness with rival billionaires, a yearning for their names to live on after their deaths, and the consummate salesmanship of high-rolling art dealers, foremost among whom was Duveen.

My second reason for being so interested in Duveen is a personal one. Although I had scarcely heard the name before discovering my two little plates and beginning to research them (i.e. last week), it seems that there are some intriguing parallels between the Duveen family history and my own.

It’s 1865, in the small town of Meppel in Holland. According to one account[6], Mrs Duveen, a Jewish blacksmith’s wife, says to her eldest son Joel Joseph: “Off you go, my boy, and seek your fortune in faraway England”. The boy obeys. He arrives in Hull and enters the lard trade. A little later, he switches out of selling lard and into selling antiques imported from his mother’s collection. A little later still, he is joined in England by his younger brother Henry. And so begins the greatest art-dealing adventure of all time.

According to another account[7], the father isn’t a lowly blacksmith but the owner of a flourishing ironworks; Joel Joseph isn’t encouraged by his mother but decides for himself to go to England; he enters the general produce trade, not lard; and the antiques are from his uncle’s art dealing business, not his mother’s collection.

The Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel, London, where my grandfather Lew Vandermolen was landlord 1926-1930. A notorious gangland murder took place there many years later. Image copied from

Whichever version of the story you prefer (I prefer the first – more romantic, somehow), very similar events were taking place at much the same time in the city of Amsterdam 135 kms to the south-west of Meppel. Four other young Jewish men, encouraged or otherwise by their mothers, are setting out to find fame and fortune in England. They are my four great-grandfathers, with family names Zuikerman (later Sugarman, later still Stewart), de Vries, van der Molen and Fortuijn (the last a great-grandfather by adoption). These boys arrive in the East End of London, where they set up in miscellaneous commercial enterprises purveying (among other things) lemons, cloth, cigars and booze. There the parallel ends. No fame, no fortune. Ho hum.

When the Duveen family moved from Hull to London, it’s possible that my ancestors sold various commodities to them, but it’s highly unlikely that there was any trade in the other direction. My family didn’t collect anything you might describe as art or antiques. They didn’t know the Duveens socially. They wouldn’t have worshipped in the same synagogues, because the Duveens were from the Sephardi (South European) branch of Judaism and my family were Ashkenazi (North and East European). However, this all took place many years before the successive waves of immigration of Jewish refugees beginning in the 1890s, first from Russian pogroms and then from Nazi persecution. Back then in the 1860s, the English Jewish community was very small. If the families didn’t know each other, they must certainly have known of each other.

So it could have been one or another of my great-grandpas who established the world’s greatest firm of art dealers. But it wasn’t. However, now you know the second reason why I’m interested.

From his lowly, lardy beginnings in Hull, Joel Joseph Duveen grew his antique and art dealing business into a huge empire, with brother Henry running the New York branch. Working on the principle that there was almost unlimited money in America and almost unlimited art in Europe, Joel Joseph (later knighted as Sir Joseph) and Henry set up an exchange programme, buying old master paintings, sculpture and antiques from impoverished European royalty and nobility, and selling them to the new extreme rich of America’s “Gilded Age”. In this way, US millionaires and billionaires could set themselves up as aristocrats within a democratic, egalitarian society which didn’t award titles. On the other side of the transaction, British, French and Italian dukes, earls and counts who were down on their luck got some extra cash to help keep their luxury lifestyles going for a few years longer.

Consuelo Vanderbilt
Consuelo Vanderbilt, daughter of Alva Vanderbilt of the Marble House, who married the Duke of Marlborough in 1895. (Library of Congress [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
It’s an interesting aside that a similar process of exchange was taking place at around the same time, involving large supplies of unmarried daughters of US millionaires who wed the fortune-less sons of European aristocrats. Such transactions allowed their parents to show off noble family connections, while at the same time the dowries of the “dollar princesses” restored the fortunes of many of the stateliest homes of Europe.

Returning to the burgeoning Duveen empire, Joel Joseph and Henry were over time joined by multiple members of the next generation of their family, including most of Joel Joseph’s eight sons, and a nephew, James Henry Duveen. James Henry ran the Liverpool gallery, and Joel Joseph’s sons were based in London, Paris and New York.

In common with many families, the Duveens were affected by rivalries, jealousies and arguments. Before long, one dominant personality emerged triumphant from an argumentative, combative miasma of sibling and intergenerational conflict. This was Joseph Duveen, the eldest son of Sir Joseph, the firm’s founder. Entering the business in the 1890s, he employed unlimited reserves of charm, charisma, bumptiousness, guile and downright intimidation to rise swiftly to the top of the family firm, driving all other members of his family either into subordinate roles or out of the business altogether. Later, as Lord Duveen of Millbank, he achieved world domination in the trade of art dealing, and also became a major philanthropist in his own right. One of his major benefactions was the financing of the Duveen Gallery at the British Museum in London where the Elgin Marbles are displayed.

Young Woman Sleeping, Johannes Vermeer, 1657. Sold by Lord Duveen to Andrew Mellon, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (Public Domain,

Such magic did Lord Duveen work upon the market for Old Master paintings, that American billionaires, when showing off their new purchases to visitors, would habitually say “It’s a Duveen” before revealing, almost as a secondary consideration, that it was also a Michelangelo or a Titian or a Leonardo or a Rembrandt or a Vermeer.

Lord Duveen was such a big character that he’s too wide to fit into a single blog piece and I intend to write another blog piece about him in the near(-ish) future. But in the meantime, let us return to the question of why the House of Duveen – masters of the antique and art dealing universe – would go to the bother of putting their august seal on my little two plates, in so doing bestowing world-class provenance upon them? The clues to this apparent paradox have already appeared in this piece.

Clue #1: I said above that when Joel Joseph Duveen left the lard (or general produce) business he set up as a dealer selling his mother’s (or uncle’s) antiques. To be specific, the antiques in question initially were pieces of Old Delft pottery, which in the later nineteenth century was an essential feature in all the interior decorating schemes of the gentry and aspiring gentry. The ubiquitous use of delftware arose mainly because its warm blues-and-whites co-ordinated and contrasted so beautifully with the dark wood panelling characteristic of interiors designed in the Gothic Revival and Arts-and-Crafts tastes.

Clue #2: I mentioned that Joel Joseph’s nephew James Henry, the son of his sister Betsy, had set up a branch of the firm in Liverpool. Although a very successful supplier of art and antiques, the Liverpool shop tended to serve a more local customer base than the London and international galleries, and its wares were commensurately more modest in scale and price, particularly in the early years. Among its customers was Lord Lever, the maker of Sunlight Soap and founder of the industrial conglomerate which eventually became Unilever. His museum, the Lady Lever Gallery, currently has in its collection a number of blue-and-white pieces (albeit mostly of Chinese origin) purchased from James Henry Duveen. (You can see an example, bearing the Duveen wax seal, here.) And, of course, although I don’t have proof, it’s very likely that the Liverpool branch of the Duveen business sold old delft pieces to customers in Scotland, where I bought my plates.

So there you have it. My two little damaged plates might have no value, but they turn out to be random treasures nevertheless, opening up for me a trove of compelling new information and insight about the history of art and antiques. The best possible final outcome would be to find evidence that these objects were in fact original items from the collections of either Eva Duveen or Jacob Hangjas, the mother and uncle of Joel Joseph. I know perfectly well that such evidence could never be found, but if this were a fictional short story instead of a truthful blog piece, that’s how the tale would end.


[1] Duveen: The Story of the Most Spectacular Art Dealer of All Time, by S. N. Behrman, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1952

[2] Joseph Duveen, Dictionary of National Biography


[4] Ibid.

[5] Nicholas Penny, quoted in

[6] S. N. Behrman, op. cit.

[7] J. H. Duveen, The Rise of the House of Duveen, London, Longmans, 1957

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