Let's Trade the Van Dyck and the Rembrandt for the Giorgione: The Inside Story of the Mellon Art Collection

It is surprising that Pittsburgh should have produced two of the greatest collectors in history: Andrew Mellon and Henry Clay Frick. Both were businessmen and in their early days the business community in Pittsburgh regarded collecting with suspicion, if not with distaste. There is a revealing report handed in to Andrew Mellon’s father, Judge Thomas Mellon, who had sent an agent from his bank to investigate Frick as a credit risk and was told: “Lands good, ovens well built, manager on job all day, keeps books evenings, may be a little too enthusiastic about pictures but not enough to hurt.”

On further acquaintance Judge Mellon must have come to like the young and enterprising coke manufacturer, who became one of his son’s closest friends. Frick was five years older than Andrew Mellon, and thus somewhat more sophisticated. He acted as mentor when in their twenties, in 1880, the two traveled to Europe for the first time. Mellon returned bringing with him a painting for which he had paid a thousand dollars, and businessmen who had admired his sagacity began to question their judgment.

Through Frick, Andrew Mellon met a partner in Knoedler and Company, Charles S. Carstairs, a man of considerable social charm who was far more influential in the formation of American collections than is generally known. From 1899 until the twenties virtually every picture that Mellon bought came from Knoedler’s. And even though Mellon met Joseph Duveen during the twenties, he continued to buy chiefly from Knoedler’s. It was only at the end of his life that he made important purchases from the rival firm. With one exception, when he negotiated for a picture directly with the owner, everything of significance he acquired came either from Knoedler’s or Duveen.

In 1900 Andrew Mellon was married. He brought his bride from a beautiful country house in England to an ugly, and for a Pittsburgher already rich, rather modest residence on Forbes Street, a part of the East End of Pittsburgh which remains strikingly unattractive. Paul Mellon, his son, has said of his first home: “The halls were dark, the walls were dark, and outside Pittsburgh itself was very dark.” Perhaps in an effort to mitigate the bleakness of these surroundings, the inventory of Knoedler’s showed that in 1899 Andrew Mellon spent more than $20,000 on pictures. He bought, however, paintings which can be described only as mediocre and which have all mercifully disappeared. For Troyon’s Cows in a Meadow, the most expensive canvas that year, he paid $17,000; for Cazin’s Moonlight Effects, $3000; and for Van Boskerck’s Sunset, Pulborough, Sussex, perhaps to make his wife less homesick, $750. Many years later he asked Roland Knoedler: “When I first started buying pictures, why didn’t you offer me Gainsboroughs, Rembrandts, Frans Hals, et cetera?” To which the dealer replied: “Because you would not have bought them.” One wonders whether this is quite true.

The evolution of Andrew Mellon as a collector, up to about 1928, seems to have passed through three phases: the first was his rather naïve acquisition of overvalued Barbizon painters and their entourage—pictures intended to be hung in his first house. Clanging streetcars and dusty traffic, however, must have made his life on Forbes Street grim. In 1916 he bought a more suitable residence on Woodland Road, one of the fewpleasant and restricted streets in the East End of Pittsburgh. The house, built by Alexander Laughlin, a partner in the steel firm of Jones & Laughlin, was vaguely Jacobean in style. It was surrounded by attractive gardens, and it managed to suggest, even in the smoky atmosphere of Pittsburgh, the civilized charm of an English country house. This must have pleased Andrew Mellon, who had long since fallen under the spell of England, a country he visited repeatedly, spending many of his happiest days there. It was this Anglophilia which, outside his business, molded his life; and it was the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square which always remained for him the ideal museum and the model for the institution he was to establish in Washington.

In the daytime the house on Woodland Road was as full of sunshine as the smoke of Pittsburgh’s blast furnaces and steel mills permitted: but at night one had a general sense of gloom, the darkness broken by patches of light where reflectors on paintings illumined the muted colors of English and Dutch portraits and landscapes. I remember on one occasion seeing emerge from the shadows a frail, fastidiously dressed man with high cheekbones, silver hair, and a carefully trimmed moustache. He was most impressive in an aristocratic, patrician way. I found him, however, exceptionally silent, as I tried my best to convey my admiration for his collection. He was inarticulate on the subject of art. Even the names of the artists whose works he owned occasionally escaped him. But from the way he looked at his paintings, from the sheer intensity of his scrutiny, I knew that he had a deep feeling for what he collected, a relationship to his pictures which I have rarely found in the many collectors I have known.

The canvases in the house on Woodland Road introduced the second phase of Andrew Mellon’s collecting. They were all of excellent quality, and many of them are now in the National Gallery of Art.

When he became Secretary of the Treasury in 1921, he rented an apartment at 1785 Massachusetts Avenue. More masterpieces arrived to decorate his new residence. His taste was still personal, not institutional. As he wrote the Duchess of Rutland in 1926, “I have no gallery with paintings or tapestries. I have only those paintings and a few tapestries which I have acquired from time to time when I had suitable places in my residence. I have not had occasion to consider acquisition of such for public purposes.”

He seems to have wanted paintings which would offer him an escape into an ideal world filled with civilized human beings, often portrayed in the midst of beautiful scenery. Passing much of his life in Washington among dreary officeholders and in Pittsburgh, where day after day he faced the smoke and dirty fog which produced his wealth, he wished to dream of a pleasanter environment. His portraits of George IV and the Duchess of Devonshire by Gainsborough, of Miss Urquhart by Raeburn, of Lady Caroline Howard by Reynolds, offered imaginary companionship with people whose personalities did not jar and whose presence did not in any way affect his reticence. Similarly, his views of the flat terrain of Holland bathed in crystalline air, and his scenes of English country life illumined by the dappled sunshine falling through fleecy clouds, gave him glimpses of landscape which obliterated for a moment the constantly settling soot outside his office windows.

He did not want to look at faces which reminded him of the politicians who were his enforced associates. Duveen once sent him Raphael’s Portrait of Giuliano deMedici, ultimately acquired by Bache. It was returned, and Andrew Mellon wrote Helen Frick, who must have subsequently contemplated its purchase, “It seemed to me a strong work but not particularly attractive for a private living room.” Was there also some intuitive doubt about the picture’s attribution, a position taken by a number of recent scholars? The painting is now admittedly a copy after Raphael and will be so catalogued by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But more probably it was, as he said, the personality of the sitter which he found distasteful. During this second phase of his collecting, he also avoided religious pictures. This meant that for the time being very few Italian pictures entered his collection. Crucifixions were particularly distasteful to him. When he finally acquired a Crucifixion by Perugino, it was a scene of sublime tranquillity without a suggestion of suffering. Nudes, too, were anathema. The partially undraped Venus with a Mirror by Titian is the closest to a nude in his collection. These were Andrew Mellon’s prejudices and preferences as a collector. But when he decided to establish the National Gallery, he put aside his aversion to religious art, though not to nudes.

The exact date of his decision to make his collection the nucleus of a new museum, which marks the third phase of his collecting, is difficult to place. Duveen, during Andrew Mellon’s tax trial (see box on page 82), said they had discussed the formation of the gallery as early as 1923, but a few random remarks could easily have been considered a discussion by a witness anxious to show an intimate friendship which was largely nonexistent. The letter to the Duchess of Rutland written in 1926 can, I believe, be taken at its face value. He was still not buying “for public purposes.”

But in the latter part of 1927 he seems to have made up his mind. He discussed the museum he proposed to build with David Finley, his personal assistant at the Treasury, and with his usual flair for choosing the right person for the job, said that he wanted Finley to be the first director. In 1928 in his diary he noted: “Ailsa [his daughter] telephoned in morning from No. 1 Sutton Place. Has just arrived from Boston. Asks if I have given art gallery to the Government.” This is the first documented mention of his intentions. From then on there are frequent references to his search for a suitable site for the new building.

The nature of his collecting also changed, and, by a fortunate coincidence, two years later he was given the greatest opportunity that has occurred in the twentieth century to form the nucleus of a collection for a great National Gallery. Paintings from the Hermitage Gallery in Leningrad had come on the market.

The history of these Russian sales is enormously complex. In the late 1920s the USSR was swarming with hopeful art dealers, but the Hermitage seems to have remained inaccessible. It was Armand Hammer who, early in 1928, made the first attempt to penetrate it. Acting for Max Steuer, the well-known New York lawyer, who was probably in turn employed by Duveen, Hammer offered $5,000,000 for forty masterpieces, far too little, as the commissar in charge pointed out with considerable irritation. He was then authorized to offer $2,000,000 for a single painting, the Benois Madonna by Leonardo da Vinci. Mikoyan, whom he consulted, indicated that $2,600,000 might buy the picture, but Steuer or Duveen would not raise the bid.

Shortly thereafter, Calouste Gulbenkian, having successfully advised the Russians on how to dump their oil in the world market, found himself exceptionally popular with the commissars—a popularity which helped him buy for his own collection the first of the Hermitage paintings and sculpture to be sold. But one particular dealer, Zatzenstein, he told me, gave him a great deal of trouble, and to keep prices down and avoid competition, he tried to use the Matthiesen Gallery in Berlin, Zatzenstein’s firm, as his agent.

Zatzenstein refused Gulbenkian’s terms. He decided, when he learned the Hermitage collection was really for sale, that it would be more profitable to buy on his own. But he had little or no capital. He asked help from Colnaghi’s, the oldest dealer in London. They suffered from the same debility. They had, however, joined with Knoedler’s in many enterprises, and Knoedler’s had an asset beyond all price: a client named Andrew Mellon. Consequently a triangular partnership was worked out between Knoedler’s, Colnaghi’s, and the Matthiesen Gallery.

When it became evident that the Matthiesen Gallery and Colnaghi’s really had the means of procuring pictures from the Hermitage, Charles Henschel, the president of Knoedler and Company, on January 15, 1930, wrote his European representative George Davey the following letter:

Dear George:
As you know, there has been a lot of talk for the last year of some of the Hermitage pictures being sold. This now seems to have come to a definite head. I had a cable from Gutekunst saying that they had a specific price of £80.000 [$400,000] on the Rubens “Portrait of Helena Fourment,” and £50,000 [$250,000] on the “Titus,” Rembrandt, Bode 447. [Both were subsequently bought by Gulbenkian.] He wanted an immediate answer as to whether or not we would definitely buy these pictures. I telephoned him to London yesterday morning and told him that we could not conclude a matter of this kind in such a hurry. Further, I told him that we were prepared to buy a number of these pictures for a good round sum, provided we got the pictures that we wanted and not necessarily the pictures that they wanted to sell. My idea was that if we purchased about £500,000 [$2,500,000] worth, it would tempt them, and we could then get some other pictures on consignment from them. Zatzenstein has apparently put this matter up to Gutekunst. I, on the other hand, have ‘been working this through another source. I am perfectly willing, however, to cooperate with Zatzenstein and Gutekunst in the matter, and told this to Gutekunst.
. . . I thought the best way to handle this would be for you to get the particulars from Gutekunst and then make arrangements with Zatzenstein to see the pictures. . . .
In selecting the pictures, we want to bear in mind the attractiveness of the subject and the size and condition. For instance, the Rubens that Gutekunst cabled about is doubtless a very fine picture, but it is a full-length and a bad shape; consequently it is not the sort of picture we would be willing to put much money into,—certainly not any such sum as £80,000 [$400,000], It may be worth this sum to some people, but not to us.
Regarding the Titus Rembrandt, I can only judge from what is said in the books and from the size. Based on the fine self-portrait we bought a year ago, this picture would not be worth more than approximately half, or around £25,000 [$125,000], possibly a shade more.

To understand fully Henschel’s letter one needs to know something of the cast of characters involved. Gutekunst was the head of Colnaghi’s, and his partner, Gus Mayer, played a leading role in all the Russian transactions. The source of the information that purchases from the Hermitage were possible was, of course, the Matthiesen Gallery, which made its contact with Knoedler’s through Colnaghi’s. The Matthiesen Gallery was headed by Zatzenstein, whose assistant, Mansfeld, seems to have been their “man in Moscow.” To complicate matters further, at some point Zatzenstein, born Katzenstein, changed his name to that of the company he headed, and in later life when I knew him was called Matthiesen.

Carman Messmore, another Knoedler partner, immediately got in touch with his client, Andrew Mellon, and proposed an ingenious arrangement. In a letter of April 24, 1930, recapitulating a verbal agreement, he wrote:

Dear Mr. Mellon,
. . . It is understood that you have authorized us to purchase for you certain paintings from the Hermitage collection in Petrograd, and that if you decide to retain them you will pay us a commission of 25% of the cost price. In the event you do not wish to keep any of them, it is understood that we will sell them for your account, and pay 25% of the profit on the price we receive for them.
We have shown you reproductions of the paintings which we decided to purchase from the above Collection, and it is understood that we will acquire them at a price at which we consider they can be disposed of, should you not care to retain them, of approximately 50% profit.

Meanwhile, in March, as an earnest of the Soviet commitment to sell, one picture, Lord Philip Wharton by Van Dyck, had arrived in New York and been bought by Mr. Mellon for $250,000. In April, a Frans Hals and two Rembrandts were added at a cost of $575,000, a very reasonable sum even in 1930.

It is apparent from the correspondence that Charles Henschel was only reluctantly enthusiastic about dealing with the Soviets and he was determined to get the Russian paintings at the lowest possible price. If Mellon did not take them, he would have to sell them at a 50 percent profit and pay out 25 percent to his client. There was also the liquidity squeeze brought on by the Depression. In 1932, when the Mellon Russian purchases were over, the situation was so serious that Charles Henschel had to write Andrew Mellon, then Ambassador in London, asking for financial assistance. Knoedler’s normally had a line of credit with New York banks amounting to more than a million dollars, but this had been cut in half when the banks began reducing their loans. Doubtless Mellon assisted Knoedler’s, just as the Mellon bank helped Duveen in similar circumstances. But throughout the Knoedler correspondence the endless efforts to get the Soviets to reduce prices put a severe strain on Knoedler’s relations with Matthiesen and Colnaghi’s.

In this connection Charles Henschel received a significant wireless from Gus Mayer of Colnaghi’s.

GULBENKIAN IS BUYER OF TITUS [by Rembrandt] AND FOURMENT [by Rubens] WHEN OFFERS ARE NOW MADE HE AND OTHERS ARE GIVEN OPPORTUNITY TO OUTBID HAVE TOLD MANSFELD TO TRY TO REVERSE THIS POSITION IN OUR FAVOUR . . . JOE [Duveen] DEVELOPING FRANTIC ACTIVITY AND TALKS OF GOING EAST HIMSELF (Signed) GUS

It seems likely that this wireless was sent on February 25, 1930, when Henschel was returning to New York after his trip to London of February 7, referred to in his letter to Davey.

The three firms seem to have been suspicious of each other. Davey was not permitted to make the trip to Leningrad suggested by Henschel. He did not get there until early in April, and then he wrote a letter to Henschel critical of the sales possibilities and of his London and Berlin partners.

Dear Carl,1
. . . From what I could see and learn, I do not think they [the Soviets] have the intention of selling any of the best pictures. They seem to be pretty well posted as to what they have. . . . Zatzenstein did not help in any way: in fact I felt that he was not pleased at all on my going to Russia and seemed frightened lest I should see any of the authorities. I am sorry now that I have followed his advice as I had only to ask a friend of mine to give me a card for the Head of the Hermitage who would have shown me everything and I could have made then a better report. Still, if something turns up very seriously, it is easy for me to run there. Through my friend, I could have got all the pictures I wanted by simply giving him a commission of 10% or even 5% at a pinch.

It is interesting to note that both Henschel and Davey felt they could buy from the Hermitage without going through Colnaghi’s and Matthiesen. But the fact remains that the Hammer brothers failed, Duveen failed, Wildenstein, apart from what assistance he may have given Gulbenkian, failed. To none of their firms would the Soviets part with their Hermitage masterpieces, though Victor and Armand Hammer felt that they could have made a deal had their mysterious client been less parsimonious.

Zatzenstein, perhaps because he was thought sympathetic to Communism, had the confidence of the commissars. He dealt only with Antiquariat, the official organization for the sale of Russian art, and he paid cash for each transaction. He knew the Hermitage officials were opposed to the sales, but he also knew that they were powerless. The Soviet Treasury wanted money, and its executives were the final authority.

It is, at first, surprising that Duveen was frustrated in his dealings with the Soviets. It was the outstanding failure of his career. In his testimony at Mr. Mellon’s tax trial he gave an explanation of his frustration. He said the Soviets would not do business with him because he was buying for his own account. “They gave me to understand,” he said, “as a matter of fact they made the statement: ‘If we were to sell these things to a dealer and he were to make a large profit on them, our heads would be cut off.’ He pointed his finger up to his throat . . . and I thought, well, maybe you ought not to sell them out of the country.” Assuming that Duveen told the truth, it is fortunate the Soviets did not know of Mr. Henschel’s arrangements with Mr. Mellon to sell anything rejected for a 50 percent profit. Luckily for the commissars, Mr. Mellon took everything.

But Duveen’s explanation, though plausible, is dubious. Knoedler’s bought French paintings from the Soviets through the Matthiesen Gallery in 1932 and sold them to private collectors. Saemy Rosenberg also made purchases of furniture and objects of the decorative arts in the 1920s, and the Hammer brothers filled their gallery with Soviet art, which they sold all over the United States at a large profit. It seems more likely that Duveen was persona non grata to the Soviets for some other reason. Perhaps they feared his characteristic love of publicity, whereas in dealing with the triple partnership of Matthiesen, Colnaghi’s, and Knoedler’s, they could count on discretion. They knew their sales would be kept in confidence.

In spite of the discouraging letter of April 15 from Davey, Charles Henschel was so pleased by his sale of the first four pictures from the Hermitage to Andrew Mellon that he decided to visit Russia himself. He departed in the first days of May, 1930. The picture that Mr. Mellon particularly wanted was the Van Eyck Annunciation, but the negotiations between the Matthiesen Gallery and the Soviets had dragged on unsuccessfully for some time. One day while at sea crossing to England, Henschel was called to the telephone. (The Olympic had one of the first telephones to be installed on a transatlantic steamship.) It was Mansfeld who said, “The Russian Ilyn is in Berlin and says they will sell the Van Eyck if they get $500,000 for it.” Henschel then telephoned Carman Messmore in New York; Messmore took a train to Washington and telephoned back: “Mr. Mellon says to go ahead and buy the picture as cheaply as you can and he will send the money to our account in the Guarantee Trust Company in London.” A few days later in Berlin, Ilyn, who as general manager of Antiquariat acted for the Soviets, received his check and delivered the painting. Nothing from Russia was ever fully paid for until delivered, though there was often a 10 percent payment on reaching an agreement.

(continued on page 81)

Henschel’s trip to Russia was productive, though apparently the negotiators, Henschel and his nephew Balay from Knoedler’s, and Gus Mayer from Colnaghi’s, hated every minute of their stay. None of them spoke Russian except Mansfeld, the Matthiesen Gallery’s agent, and all they could find to eat was sturgeon, caviar, and vodka. Henschel offered a cigarette to one of the officials of the Hermitage. It was wistfully refused with the remark that unless Henschel was prepared to give a cigarette to everyone at the Hermitage, including laborers and guards, the acceptance of such a gift by the official in question might very well cost him his job.

The dealers were delighted to leave the USSR, but they were also overjoyed at the progress they had made. Between June, 1930, and April, 1931, the following paintings were delivered to Mr. Mellon:

Botticelli Adoration of the Magi
Raphael Alba Madonna
Raphael Saint George and the Dragon
Perugino Crucifixion
Titian Venus with a Mirror
Veronese The Finding of Moses
Van Eyck The Annunciation
Rubens Isabella Brant
Van Dyck Susanna Fourment and Her Daughter
Van Dyck William II of Nassau and Orange
Hals Portrait of an Officer
Rembrandt A Woman Holding a Pink
Rembrandt Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s Wife
Velazquez Pope Innocent X
Chardin The House of Cards
Rembrandt A Turk
Van Dyck Portrait of a Flemish Lady

Some of these were received in Berlin at the Matthiesen Gallery and some were brought to New York. The last two to arrive were the Alba Madonna by Raphael and the Venus with a Mirror by Titian. These were brought by hand by Boris Kraevsky, member of the Collegium of the Commissariat for Foreign Trade, and Nicolas Ilyn. As good Communists they came to America steerage and stayed in a second-class hotel, but exhilarated by the sums of money involved (the payment for the two paintings was $1,355,200) they shortly afterward moved to the Biltmore and returned home first-class.

It is difficult to comprehend why the few million dollars realized from the sale of works of art seemed so important to the Soviets. The partners of Matthiesen and Co. were puzzled at the time. As Zatzenstein in his gloriously erratic English wrote Henschel on January 14, 1931, in the midst of negotiations, “Personally I never can understand why the Eastern people do sell—by their tremendous dumping on every market they get amounts of money so much more important than these comparatively poor sums, worked out of art-business, that I do not believe they are really forced sellers.”

Despite the flow of foreign currency which he says the Soviets are realizing, Zatzenstein continues: “After concluding a deal the Russians instantly want money. To solve this difficult question we arranged with our bank a blocked account. This is to make it possible for the Russians to get immediately a credit on the money which is owed to them, for the time until the delivery of the pictures.”

The letter was continued on February 9, as Zatzenstein had been ill. He goes on to say that Mansfeld was happily successful in getting “the Botticelli and the Rembrandt” and that he has received Henschel’s confirmation of the purchase of the “Hanneman and Veronese.” He has started, he adds, to refurbish the reputation of the Hanneman, a portrait of William II of Orange, “which always used to be considered a masterwork by Van Dyck.” To do this he has had to offer Burckhardt and Gluck (the foremost authorities on Flemish paintings) 20,000 marks. He encloses letters from both ascribing the portrait, which is now in the National Gallery of Art, to Van Dyck, and he points out that for a Hanneman the £15,000 ($75,000) they had paid was very dear, but for a Van Dyck they had a bargain.

He admits that Knoedler’s has paid out “a tremendous sum . . . but you must not forget that you would have lost this business entirely . . . and you do not give care enough to the fact . . . that we are more or less a branch of Knoedler’s, eagerly proceeding in the art to perform and exquisitely display how to be successful in social communication with Bolsheviki.”

He continues:

What you write about Sir Joe [Duveen] was exact at the time when you sent me your letter. Meanwhile he got back a good part of his activity and I am afraid, trusting you are quite alone in the buying field, you will have some bad surprises. . . . After so much publicity, of course, things could not remain in secret, as it used to be, and besides the Russian people changed a good deal of their tactics, trying to come in touch with private people and museums. In fact they succeeded to sell a good deal of pictures between £1000 and £20,000 ($5000 and $100,000), as smaller examples by the French and Dutch Masters, but also pictures by Terborch, Metsu, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, Raphael, and so on, at astonishing prices. . . . Recently Duveen renewed important offers for some of the finest pictures. . . .

In ordinary business, time works for you to get pictures cheaper. In this business the competition becomes wider and I am afraid we are going to loose [sic] one picture after another.

All the time I was following your instructions, but as you ask my personal judgment, I must tell you, that I am convinced that your way to work was a mistake, as every picture could have been bought much cheaper half a year ago. . . .

We all here are under the impression that you do not much believe in our ability of negotiating and that you therefore recently have the tactic not to give us your real price-ideas, to prevent us offering too much at the start. I very often explained you, that our counteragents are well informed and even too well informed what concerns top-prices, and that there is only a very small chance to buy cheap by making discoveries. To buy reasonable we did our best and used all the tactics possible, and developed to be fit for the diplomatic service.

It is apparent from this anguished plea for understanding from Knoedler’s German partner that Charles Henschel was trying to drive hard bargains to force the Russians to sell well below their estimates. With the benefit of hindsight it is all too evident that Zatzenstein was right. It is axiomatic that for priceless works of art it is folly to haggle over price. Was Andrew Mellon at fault? It was the beginning of the Depression and the prices of all commodities were falling. Many works of art also could be bought more cheaply. But the pictures which were being dumped on the market in New York and London were not the masterpieces of one of the greatest collections ever formed. It seems probable that Mr. Mellon did not fully realize that he was negotiating for paintings which could not be matched in the stock of Duveen, Wildenstein, or any other dealer in the world. He finally acquired twenty-one paintings of unique beauty and significance for $6,654,000. It seemed a tremendous sum at the time, yet a single painting, the Radnor Velazquez, in 1970 brought almost as much as what he paid for the entire twenty-one masterpieces. One wishes the enthusiasm of Mr. Mellon and Mr. Henschel, faced with the greatest opportunity in the history of collecting, had been a little less reluctant.

With the delivery by Ilyn and Kraevsky of the last two pictures agreed upon, the Soviet representatives seem to have discussed with Henschel further acquisitions. For on April 11, 1931, Messmore wrote Andrew Mellon the most fascinating letter of all.

Dear Mr. Mellon:
I am enclosing all the facts we have been able to secure regarding the Giorgione and the two Leonardo da Vincis.
They have given us a price of 700 [thousand pounds, $3,500,000] for these three pictures, and a price of 500 [thousand pounds, $2,500,000] for the Giorgione and the “Benois” Leonardo.
They wish to include in this transaction at least three of the pictures on which they had previously given us the prices first mentioned below.

19 S. Martini £15,000 [$75,000] £12,000 [$60,000]

96 Murillo 40,000 [$200,000] 30,000 [$150,000]

163 de Hoogh 40,000 [$200,000] 35,000 [$175,000]

40 Cima 56,000 [$280,000] 48,000 [$240,000]

They have now named as the lowest prices they will take on these pictures the figures in the second column.

Please think over if you would like to offer them the following price for six pictures,—namely:

42 Giorgione £170,000 [$850,000]
30 Leonardo 120,000 [$600,000]
31 Leonardo 100,000 [$500,000]
163 de Hoogh 30,000 [$150,000]
96 Murillo 10,000 [$50,000]
19 Simone Martini 10,000 [$50,000]
£450,000 [$2,250,000]

I have not included the Cima #40 for which their lowest price is £48,000 [$240,000], as we do not consider it worth more than about £25,000 [$125,000].

If we can conclude this deal advantageously, we will have secured all of the greatest pictures in the entire collection. As a matter of fact, the only three outstanding pictures which are left are the Giorgione and the two Leonardos. Later on, if we could secure the early Velazquez and the Filippino Lippi #20 at a low price, it might be wise to do so.

Messmore must have received some encouragement from his client, for a month later Henschel was in London negotiating with a representative of the USSR. On May 12, 1931, he wrote Messmore:

Dear Carman:
I told our Russian friend this morning that we would definitely not be interested in buying the Giorgione at the price that he wanted; he said this was perfectly all right and that he knew he could sell the picture to Joe [Duveen] and therefore we need not worry further about it. I told him at the same time that the price for the de Hoogh was considerably exaggerated and that £25,000 [$125,000] would be the top price for this picture and that I even doubted that it could be sold for this amount. He said that it was perfectly all right as far as he was concerned; that they did not have to sell any of the pictures and would not do so unless they got what they considered good prices.
If Joe should buy the Giorgione and announce it to the press, I think we ought to come out with a good strong article telling of our purchases and making an interesting story out of it. Naturally we would not in any circumstances mention A.W.M.’s name, but on the other hand, the Press might put it in on their own account. You might talk to A.W. about this so that we can be prepared in the event of the matter getting into the newspapers.

The letter does not mention the two paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, and nothing more is recorded of the proposed deal. It is heartbreaking, for if it had been consummated, the National Gallery of Art today would have two undoubted paintings by Leonardo, and two possibly by him, and three by Giorgione—a record that only the Louvre could equal.

Saddest of all, the prices quoted by Messmore seem in line with what Mr. Mellon had been paying. If these figures can be relied on, it would seem as though the Russians had reduced the price of the Benois Madonna from $2,600,000 in 1928 to $2,500,000 for it and the Giorgione Judith in 1931. Deflation as a consequence of the Great Depression had finally reached Russia.

Why further bargaining was necessary is hard to understand. Duveen testified on the witness stand, though he later changed his testimony, that the certain Leonardo, the Benois Madonna, was bought by the Czar in 1913 for $1,500,000. Even if Duveen’s testimony can rarely be relied on, surely the purchase of this painting and Giorgione’s Judith for $2,500,000 would have been a bargain by any standards.

After the collapse of negotiations for these three supreme treasures, Henschel turned to French Impressionist and Postimpressionist paintings, though as late as March 3, 1933, in the last letter I have seen to Mansfeld, he says:

Mr. Mellon will probably be back here shortly and I am hoping to be able to induce him to make some kind of a deal on the Giorgione. In the event of his being willing to buy this picture, I feel sure that he would want to give back the Van Dyck woman or the Rembrandt Turk, or possibly both. What I will try to do is to get a group of some of the French pictures mentioned above, the Van Eyck [now in the Metropolitan Museum], and the Giorgione, and make some kind of a proposition for the whole lot. This would involve more money, and perhaps would appeal more to Ilyn.

Nothing came of the proposal, but Mr. Mellon bought other important pictures from Knoedler’s apart from those I have mentioned. The first really expensive picture he acquired was the Portrait of Edward VI as a Child by Holbein, for which he paid in 1925 $437,000.

Mellon was always prepared to pay high prices, but he was anxious that the dealers should not receive exorbitant profits. The Rembrandt Self-Portrait from the Duke of Buccleuch’s collection is a case in point. It is one of the most profound examples of visual self-analysis in existence and thus represented an acquisition of supreme value. Carman Messmore asked $600,000. Mr. Mellon looked at the painting and inquired how much Knoedler’s had paid the duke. Messmore admitted it had cost his firm only $250,000. This seemed a shocking profit, and the painting went back to New York. Months passed without Knoedler’s most important client making any further purchases. Then Carman Messmore in considerable anxiety took the portrait to Washington, and while Mr. Mellon was out of his apartment, hung it on the principal wall of the dining room. He waited nervously for the return of the Secretary of the Treasury, who invited him for lunch. During the meal Mr. Mellon did not once mention the unexpected intruder hanging opposite him. When Messmore left, the painting remained in the dining room, and some weeks later he asked whether it should be removed. Andrew Mellon replied that he had decided to buy the picture but not at the price asked. He added, “You will have to make a considerable reduction.” More time passed without concession on either side. Finally Mr. Mellon made a proposal, for the Self-Portrait was a painting he had come to love dearly. He had a Pieter de Hooch he didn’t like. He offered to trade it in, and if Knoedler would also take a 10 percent reduction, he would buy the Rembrandt. The deal was immediately concluded.

This particular painting has in a curious way paid for itself. Dr. Adolph Miller, at one time the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, used to come regularly to the National Gallery, and I would often see him sitting on a couch in front of Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait. One day he told me that he would leave his entire collection and a property worth a large sum of money to the National Gallery of Art. “John,” he said, “I want you to know that I am not doing this because of you or anyone else. I am doing it because of what I have been taught by the extraordinary insight of Rembrandt’s self-analysis. I have studied the picture for years, and it has given me a deeper understanding of life.”

Mr. Mellon never bid at auction, and apart from a few American paintings and Lady Broughton by Romney, I know of only one other occasion when he bought directly from a private person. In the case of this particular painting, The Marquesa de Pontejos by Goya, Knoedler’s had asked whether he would be interested in its acquisition if it were for sale. The answer was affirmative, but as the deal hung fire, he decided impatiently that it could be expedited. He authorized David Finley to negotiate through the American Embassy in Madrid with the owners, who had been reluctant to come to terms with Knoedler’s. When the purchase was made, however, Andrew Mellon found that he still had to depend on Knoedler’s for the Spanish export permit. This required months of negotiations and certain payments over and beyond export taxes—delicate deals, for which the word “bribe” might seem too brutally descriptive. Such “reimbursements” only an experienced intermediary could possibly arrange. In the end the commission Mellon paid, somewhat peevishly, was what he would have been charged had he not intervened. After this purchase he seems to have been reluctant to try direct negotiations with private owners.

Shortly after the great coup of the Hermitage acquisitions Andrew Mellon left Washington and the Treasury to become Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. It was during this period that his contacts with Duveen increased. Knoedler’s influence after the conclusion of the Russian deals waned, but a majority of the greatest aequisitions can be traced to Carl Henschel and Carman Messmore of Knoedler’s. The Duveen paintings, though they included many masterpieces, were less impressive, and until 1936 not numerous.

Having decided to establish the National Gallery of Art, however, and realizing that his works of art might seem inadequate as the nucleus of the great national collection he envisaged, Andrew Mellon turned to Duveen the year before he died and made his largest single purchase. He had never been enthusiastic about Italian paintings, and this section of his collection was weak in numbers though not in quality. In 1936, when he was in London, he saw Joseph Duveen, who said to him: “I am going to retire from business. You are ready to give your collection for a national gallery. This is a combination of circumstances that can never happen again.” He urged Mr. Mellon on his return to America to make a selection from his stock, and presumably offered some reduction in price, though considering what was finally paid, any reduction seems to have been illusory.

When Andrew Mellon arrived back in Washington it was evident that he had greatly aged. Feeling too weak to go to New York himself, he asked David Finley to pay a visit to Duveen Brothers and send to Washington any pictures he felt might be worthy of the new gallery. Finley then chose thirty paintings, of which twenty-four were retained. Most were Italian and included masterpieces by Duccio, Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, Giovanni Bellini, and others. It was an extraordinary group, which at that time could have been purchased nowhere else.

Among the paintings selected was a Madonna of Humility by Masaccio. Shortly before Duveen’s death in 1939 I saw him in London and he asked me what I thought of this extraordinary panel. I praised it, and he told me that he was delighted and surprised. He was convinced at one time, he said, that he would never be able to sell it. He had bought it on the advice of Bernard Berenson, and it had remained for years in his stock. Finally he became so infuriated with this reminder of what he considered to be his folly that he told his assistant, a man called Boggis, he wanted to chop it up. Boggis begged him to have patience, and his patience was unexpectedly rewarded, for David Finley was an enthusiast of Italian painting who also had read Berenson, and it was he who induced a somewhat reluctant Andrew Mellon to buy the Madonna of Humility. Meanwhile, Duveen, instead of destroying the picture completely, decided to destroy it partially by having it repainted. There are demonstrable differences between the panel as it appears now, and as it was reproduced in the article by Berenson first publishing it, but though in a ruined state, it remains, in my opinion, a significant echo of the work of the rarest and greatest genius of the early fifteenth century. The anecdote throws an interesting light on two aspects of Duveen’s personality: his mercenary side—his anger at having bought an unsalable picture, for he could not foresee that an admirer of Berenson, who also had a considerable knowledge and love of the history of Italian art, would fortuitously arrive and persuade his principal client to buy a picture so often rejected; and his disarming frankness—a willingness to reveal his almost embarrassing foibles, among them his desire to give the impression of reckless impetuosity.

Duveen not only wanted to sell Andrew Mellon paintings, but he wished to interest him in the plastic arts as well, for he owned the Dreyfus Collection of sculpture. It was important, therefore, that Mr. Mellon should abandon his original idea of modeling the National Gallery in Washington on that in London, thus restricting the collection to pictures. A supersalesman, Lord Duveen persuaded his client that the design of the building, which John Russell Pope had drawn up, required some monumental statues for the halls leading to the garden courts, and since these pieces were obviously a necessity, a representation of Italian sculpture would be desirable. Some of the Dreyfus Collection was already sold, and Mr. Mellon was not interested in the medals, plaquettes, and small bronzes which Dreyfus himself loved so fondly, but the greater part of the pieces that remained—marbles, terracottas, woodcarvings—were brought to Washington and seventeen ultimately acquired.

When all the paintings and sculpture were ready to be moved from New York to the capital, Duveen played his masterstroke, one characteristic of his genius. He rented an apartment at 1785 Massachusetts Avenue on the floor below Mr. Mellon, and in these rooms beautifully installed his works of art. They remained there for several months, and Andrew Mellon alone or with friends would spend hours contemplating his prospective purchases. Lord Duveen himself came occasionally to apply his salesmanship. One day he called Mr. Mellon’s attention to the Portrait of the Marchesa Balbi by Van Dyck, suddenly illumined by a ray of sunshine. “Look at that picture, Mr. Mellon,” he said, “with that light upon it. Have you ever seen anything so marvelous?” “My pictures, Duveen,” Mr. Mellon replied, with the trace of a smile, as though acknowledging the dealer’s cosmic partnership, “never look so well as they do when you are here.”

The influence of Joseph Duveen on Andrew Mellon, however, has come to be greatly overstated. The explanation of this exaggeration goes back to the tax trial imposed on the exSecretary of the Treasury by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. One of the facts at issue was the National Gallery of Art. It had not been established, and the government claimed Mr. Mellon had no intention of founding such an institution. It was therefore important to produce people with whom he had discussed the future gallery, and it was decided Duveen would be a useful witness. The lawyers for the defense wished him to state in the fewest possible words that he knew Mr. Mellon had had in mind for several years building and endowing a National Gallery in Washington. Lord Duveen accomplished his mission, but under crossexamination, not in the fewest possible words. Instead he gave the impression that Mr. Mellon was virtually his puppet. He claimed or implied that he, Duveen, chose the location of the future gallery, selected its architect, John Russell Pope, decided that marble should be used for its construction, and advised more or less on the collection it should house.

A few years ago I asked Donald Shepard, who was one of Mr. Mellon’s principal lawyers and also his executor, about the Duveen statements. He said he would never forget the amazement and anger of himself and his associates in the case when Duveen began his testimony. This part of the trial departed entirely from the scenario; but it is a rule of law that one cannot impeach one’s own witness. The Mellon lawyers were powerless to stop Duveen’s boasting. It was his shining hour and he made the most of it.

In fairness to Mr. Mellon it seems important to set the record straight. First, regarding the location, Lord Duveen mentions in the picturesque language of his testimony, “By the obelisk, near the pond.” As S. N. Behrman has written in his biography of Duveen, this transposition of “the Washington Monument to the Sahara and its reflecting pool to some English county” caused the spectators to howl with laughter. But what Duveen was describing was a location which had been proposed by the head of the Fine Arts Commission sometime before and rejected by Mr. Mellon.

Second, the architect, John Russell Pope. Years before, when he was Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon had chosen Pope to be the architect of the National Archives Building. Pope and Cass Gilbert were the two architects seriously considered for the new gallery. When Gilbert died, Pope, who would probably have been selected in any event, was chosen. The selection had nothing to do with Duveen, nor is there any evidence that he introduced John Russell Pope to Andrew Mellon, as he claimed.

Third, the material. Mr. Mellon himself chose Tennessee rose marble for the external walls. He had seen several New York buildings of this material which he liked, and he was determined to use it regardless of cost.

Fourth, the collection. Duveen’s influence, apart from the works of art which he offered for sale, was limited to the inclusion of sculpture. All the paintings and sculpture, however, were chosen by Mr. Mellon, whose personal taste can be seen in the rejection of the Giuliano de’ Medici attributed to Raphael and in the return of many of the pictures from Duveen’s stock brought by David Finley to Washington.

Mr. Mellon bought 55 Old Masters from Duveen Brothers. He bought 129 from Knoedler’s. However, the number of paintings acquired from Duveen’s rival was greatly increased by the acquisition of the entire Thomas B. Clarke Collection of 175 American portraits. The most important of these have come to the National Gallery, others of historical interest have been given to the National Portrait Gallery, and a third group falsely attributed and spuriously identified have been stored away. Mr. Mellon realized that this third group existed, but such masterpieces as Mrs. Yates by Gilbert Stuart and many other portraits by the same artist, and The Washington Family by Savage, one of the most famous of American icons, more than justify the purchase.

The Mellon Collection which was shown to the public when the gallery opened was distilled from 369 pictures to 125. Of these, more than 95 percent have stood more than thirty years of the most critical scrutiny and have proved to be masterpieces of the highest quality, an amazing feat of connoisseurship. The sculpture, numbering only 23 examples, was bought en bloc and the percentage of masterpieces is somewhat less. Three pieces had ultimately to be stored or returned to Duveen Brothers.

But the record remains astonishing, especially for an amateur, self-trained and involved all his life in business and governmental responsibilities.

Dr. John G. Bowman, the chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, an old friend, once asked Mr. Mellon a question every collector must have asked himself, the motivation which led to his collecting. “He looked straight at me for a rather long pause,” Dr. Bowman has written in a memorandum for an unpublished life of Mr. Mellon. “ ‘Every man,’ he said slowly, ‘wants to connect his life with something he thinks eternal. If you turn that over in your mind you will find the answer to your question.’”

  1. The more intimate first name used by Charles Henschel’s friends.