Lounge Lizard: Chapter 2

In my last blog piece I introduced readers to Jefferson Davis Cohn, colourful character, lounge lizard, charmer, wealthy businessman, horse breeder and man-about-town. I hoped you were interested in hearing about this rather overlooked figure who operated just off the centre of high society in the 1920s and 1930s, but I might have detected just a whisper of restiveness from readers who think this blog should be about antiques, auctions and alchemy and not about lounge lizards.

At the end of Chapter 1 I promised (threatened?) readers that in my next instalment I would try to connect the Lounge Lizard to a group of apparently disparate objects and incidents, which do indeed include antiques and auctions, but not necessarily alchemy. I’ll treat them in the following order, viz:

  • a couple of badly-chipped blue-and-white plates in my collection
  • the world’s greatest art dealer
  • some fabulous paintings
  • a young girl who died in 1795 aged just twelve
  • an auction
  • a gigantic statue in Hyde Park, London
  • a secret love affair
  • a cat who died in a drowning incident in 1747 (age unknown)

 

The blue-and-white plates. If you have read my previous blog piece entitled World Class Provenance (and if you haven’t, you can find it here), you already know about the chipped blue-and-white plates. They are undistinguished Dutch Delft pieces from the 18th century, and their main interest lies in the wax or lacquer seals affixed to their backs which permit me to connect my personal antique collection with the distinguished name of the dealer Duveen.

 

The world’s greatest art dealer. The firm of Duveen was founded in the 1860s but was dominated from around 1895 until his death in 1939 by the founder’s eldest son Joe, laterLord Duveen of Millbank. By sheer power of personality, combined with boundless chutzpah (that very useful Yiddish word again!) and total unscrupulousness, Joe acquired for himself the undisputed title of World’s Greatest Art Dealer, responsible for jacking up the prices of Old Master paintings to levels at which only the richest and most aspirational of American and British collectors could afford to compete with each other to buy them.

 

Lady Michelham in 1920, painting by Federico Beltran-Masses. Image borrowed from https://www.alfineart.com/collection/paintings/federico-beltran-masses-lady-michelham/

The fabulous paintings. The paintings in question were those in the collection of the Dowager Lady Michelham of Michelham Priory, Sussex. She was born in 1882 as Aimée Geraldine Bradshaw, the daughter of Octavius Bradshaw, the tenant of Powderham Castle in Devon. In 1899 she married Herbert Stern, the first Baron Michelham, one of the wealthiest men in Britain, who died in 1919.

Aimée’s was a short but exciting life. She bore two sons (of whom, more later) and took at least two lovers. As a widow she was also involved in a complex and sensational lawsuit (jointly with Captain Cohn) involving disputed codicils to her late husband’s will. She died In 1927 of liver failure due to alcoholism.

During her married life and widowhood Aimée accumulated many beautiful racehorses (chosen for her by her friend Jeff Cohn), beautiful houses (decorated for her by her friend Joe Duveen), and beautiful works of art (sold to her at outrageous prices by her friend Joe Duveen). Part of the art collection was kept at the Michelham’s London house at 20 Arlington Street, St James’s, the palatial former home of the Marquis of Salisbury. These artworks included magnificent French tapestries, furniture and porcelain, and paintings by, among others, Boucher, Hoppner, Raeburn, Romney, Gainsborough and a very special picture by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

 

The young girl who died in 1795 aged just twelve. The star painting in the collection was entitled Pinkie. The art critic Selwyn Brinton, writing in the American Magazine of Art in December 1926, distinguishes it from the other pictures in the collection as follows:

“Beautiful as they all are, I do not think I shall be wrong in placing first the famous full length of “Pinkie” … by Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA exhibited in the Royal Academy exhibition of 1795 and again there among the old masters in 1907. The lovely child – for she is no more – is standing upright in a spreading English landscape and the pink of her sash and the loosened ribbons of her hat have given the portrait its popular title”[1]

Pinkie was the nickname of Sarah Goodin Barrett Moulton, who was born on 22 March 1783, the only daughter and eldest of the four children of Charles Moulton, a wealthy Jamaica merchant and slave owner. Sarah was sent to England in 1792 to improve her education, and began to sit (or rather to stand) for the portrait by Lawrence in 1794. She died aged just twelve in April 1795, and the painting went on display at the Royal Academy exhibition on the day after her burial.

 

The auction. In 1926, when Aimée was suffering from her terminal illness, her collection of works of art from the Arlington Street house at was sold at auction by Messrs Hampton & Sons, a sale that Brinton had “no hesitation in saying [was] likely to be one of the most important of recent years and … maximum prices, both in the furniture and portraits, may be confidently expected”[2].

The reason why maximum prices could be expected so confidently did not simply lie in the spectacular nature of the objects themselves. There was also the fact that many lots in the sale were originally supplied to Lord and Lady Michelham by Joe Duveen. Duveen, the consummate salesman, always sold at top-dollar prices, and always made certain that if a millionaire was hesitating about a purchase, he had a billionaire lined up eager to snatch that item from the millionaire. For Joe, every sale was made at a record price – and if for any reason there was doubt about setting a new record the next time an object was exposed for sale, then Joe needed to manipulate the sale to make it look as if it did.

This simple business model was usually highly successful. But it could also be problematic. If Joe had sold a picture to a gullible banker at an outrageously high price and it re-appeared at a public auction a few years later, then there was no knowing for certain whether bidders would come forward to beat the previous price. And Duveen’s reputation would suffer damage if Pinkie and the other pictures fetched lower prices at the auction than the prices that Joe had charged when he first sold them privately to the Michelhams.  Just as bad or even worse would be a situation where a rival high-end dealer outbid Joe for an especially desirable picture, because Joe couldn’t bear to be beaten.

Fortunately, help was at hand to get Joe Duveen out of this tricky spot. It happened that Jeff Cohn and Joe Duveen, who you might describe as horses from very similar stables, were long-time co-conspirators. Jeff had invariably acted as an agent and go-between for Duveen’s in their transactions with the Michelhams, and had received a handsome 15% commission or backhander on the price of every object supplied. So Jeff was on board to help with the auction. As was Jack Stern, the younger of Aimée’s sons, a likely lad with an interest in the art market. Since Jack was to benefit from 50% of the proceeds of the sale of his dying mother’s collection, he had everything to gain from helping to inflate the auction prices. By helping Joe he was also helping himself.

The arrangement was that Jack and Jeff would act secretly on Joe’s behalf to bid up the best pieces in the sale, all the time keeping a close eye on Joe, who was standing near them. They would know to stop bidding when Joe took his watch out of his pocket. In this way, some objects would be knocked down to Joe, some to Jeff and some to Jack, everything would appear to be above-board, and the final prices would be whatever Joe might determine. He would then sell them on privately at even further inflated prices to the rich Americans who he already had lined up to buy them, and pass on commissions to Jeff and Jack.[3]

It worked.

“The most famous painting in the sale, Pinkie, went to Duveen Brothers for 74,000 guineas or $377,000, which the auctioneer said was the highest price ever paid for a picture at a public auction anywhere in the world. H.E. Huntington [the US billionaire] bought it for about £90,000 or $439,000”[4]

Today, Pinkie is on permanent public display at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. By a curious coincidence, Pinkie is also on display in my local branch of the Sue Ryder charity shop here in Edinburgh. I saw her there this very morning, price £5.00. I’m not certain how it’s possible for the picture to be in two places at once, but my suspicion is that one or other is a copy or reproduction.

 

The gigantic statue in Hyde Park, London. In the middle of the very busy roundabout at the foot of Park Lane in central London, the spot which divides Hyde Park from Green Park and super-fashionable Mayfair from equally-fashionable Knightsbridge, there stands an enormous stone arch, erected in the early nineteenth century as a monument to Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, victor of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and, much later, Britain’s Prime Minister.

In 1912, the Wellington Arch achieved yet further grandeur by being topped with a huge bronze statue of a quadriga (a Roman four-horse chariot) by the sculptor Adrian Jones. Here’s what Wikipedia says about it:

“Jones’s statue is based on a smaller original which caught the eye of Edward VII at a Royal Academy exhibition. The sculpture depicts Nike, the winged goddess of victory, descending on the chariot of war, holding the classical symbol of victory and honour, a laurel wreath. The face of the charioteer leading the quadriga is that of a small boy (actually the son of Lord Michelham, who funded the sculpture) … The statue is the largest bronze sculpture in Europe.”[5]

We have seen that Lord Michelham’s wife Aimée had two sons. The elder boy Herman, born in 1900, who succeeded to the title on his father’s death in 1919, was a dim-witted and weedy lad. The younger son Jack, born in 1904 was, as demonstrated above, a bright and intelligent boy, and very much Lord Michelham’s favourite. I haven’t been able to ascertain which son’s face was immortalised as that of the quadriga’s charioteer, but I think it more likely to have been Jack’s than Herman’s.

 

Lord and Lady Michelham. Image borrowed from https://www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk/the-house/history/the-sterns-and-the-michelhams/

The secret love affair. When the Michelhams married in 1899, Herbert was 48 years old, an important banker, and Aimée was 17 years old, a teenager who liked horses and fun. In the circumstances, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that Aimée took at least two lovers during the period of her marriage. The first affair was on-and-off but long-lasting. The second affair was short-lived but had profound consequences.

A 1913 cartoon of Boy Capel dancing with Coco Chanel

We’ll deal with the second affair first. The paramour was Captain Arthur “Boy” Capel CBE, who was (among much else) a polo player, tycoon, heroic flying ace of the Royal Flying Corps, and former lover and muse of the fashion designer Coco Chanel.  Boy Capel had a busy time of it in the years 1918 and 1919: he returned from the War, ended his affair with Coco, married the rich widow the Honourable Diana Wyndham, dallied with Aimée Michelham, and was killed in a car accident in December 1919.

The short dalliance led to a somewhat unexpected outcome: the arranged marriage of Herman, Lord Michelham’s simple and compliant first son and heir, aged 18, to Boy’s spinster sister Bertha, aged 39. The wedding took place just three days before Lord Michelham’s death, and Bertha acquired not only a child husband but also the title of Lady Michelham and an enormous financial settlement. She kept the title and the husband, but the settlement was later overturned in a famous lawsuit initiated by Captain Cohn on Aimée’s behalf.

As for Aimée’s first affair, which lasted on and off for many years, the secret lover was – as you might have guessed by now – none other than the lounge lizard Jeff Cohn himself. This relationship also had an outcome: Jack Stern, Lord Michelham’s second son and favourite, was in fact fathered by Captain Cohn.

Just last week I walked past the Wellington Arch when on a visit to London, but I wasn’t able to get a decent close-up photograph of the child charioteer of the bronze quadriga. You can just about see in this poor image that the features are indeed those of a child. Does he, I wonder, bear a resemblance not to his legal father Herbert Stern, Lord Michelham, but rather to his mother’s Lounge Lizard lover, Captain Jefferson Davis Cohn?

 

I set out in this piece to connect a whole raft of apparently disparate objects and incidents, and congratulate myself that I have been able to bring all seven of them together quite neatly … But hold on a moment! On double-checking my set of bullet points I see that I was supposed to be making eight connections. What about The cat who died in a drowning incident in 1747? Oh no! I’ve forgotten about Selima!

I need to tell you about the cat. But I can’t fit her in here and spoil my carefully-crafted conclusion to this piece, so she will just have to have another chapter to herself. Watch out for Lounge Lizard: Chapter 3, coming soon.


[1] Selwyn Brinton, The Michelham Sale, The American Magazine of Art, Vol. 17, No. 12 (DECEMBER, 1926), pp. 641-643. Accessed from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/23929626

[2] Ibid.

[3] I have summarised part of the story told in this section from The Partnership (later re-titled the Artful Partnership) by Colin Simpson, London, The Bodley Head, 1987

[4] Meryle Secrest, Duveen, a Life in Art, New York, Alfred A Knopf 2005

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wellington_Arch


One thought on “Lounge Lizard: Chapter 2

Leave a Reply