Gulbenkian & Duveen

Thomas Gainsborough, Mrs Lowndes-Stone, Museu Gulbenkian

“In Paris, Duveen always stayed at the Ritz. A permanent guest at this hotel, with whom Duveen had many encounters over the years, was Calouste S. Gulbenkian, the Armenian oil Croesus. Gulbenkian, who controls now, as he controlled then, a good deal of the oil in Iraq, is often said to be richest man in Europe, and possibly in the world, and possesses one of the world’s most valuable collections. Of all his achievements, perhaps the most chic is that he several times outmanoeuvred Duveen. One day, happening upon Duveen in one of the Ritz elevators, Gulbenkian told him that he knew of three fine English pictures for sale – a Reynolds, a Lawrence, and a Gainsborough. The owner wanted to sell them in a lot. Gulbenkian proposed that Duveen buy them and give him, as a reward for his tip, an option on any one of the three, with his proviso: Duveen was to out his own prices on them before Gulbenkian made his choice known, but the total price was not to exceed what Duveen had paid. Duveen bought the pictures and went about setting the individual prices. As he wanted from Gulbenkian a sum that would become the richest man in Europe, he pondered deeply before deciding which picture he thought Gulbenkian would choose. The finest, although the least dazzling of the three was Gainsborough’s “Portrait of Mrs. Lowndes-Stone.” The showiest was the Lawrence. Duveen concluded that the Lawrence would have the greatest appeal to his client’s Oriental taste. He put a Duveen price on the Lawrence, and therefore had to set reasonable figures for the two others. He overlooked the fact that Gulbenkian is a canny student of art as well as an Oriental. Gulbenkian took the Gainsborough.  It was one the few times anyone acquired a Duveen without a Duveen price for it.”

S.N.Behrman – Duveen, The Most Spectacular Art Dealer of All Time, New York, 1951.

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