The whole thing was a scandal. Authenticating Old Master art, inflating the price, actig for the buyer and making commission as a seller. But there behavior probably reflected the same values and mannerisms of the wealthy industrial class they were trying to emulate and please, so perhaps what went around, came around. And the patrons of art were fabulously wealthy: The Mellons, J.P. Morgans, Fricks, etc. were the bedrock of the capitalist system. And art was another predatory good used in the Veblen sense as social capital and invidious comparison. And spend on it they did, draining Europe and establishing the power of America at least as a cultural warehouse.
So, Berenson was part of this immigrant Jewish population and desperately wanted to escape that identity; the peddler, the wandering yid selling his wares, so there was some extensive narcissism involved in climbing out of the ghetto and at least superficially shedding the shetl for what passed as high society. It may not have been technically illegal, but based on due disclosure, the buyer also had to engage in due diligence as well, Berenson was highly unethical. But the money was unbelievable. He was like a one man hedge fund, a Goldman Sachs of art, sucking the commission blood out of any stone, pump and dump the values of art and any other scam they could think of. The underbelly of America did not begin with Ginsberg, Kerouac and the Beats; it began with these street hustlers masquerading as classy wasps.
The Berenson- Joseph Duveen collusion, complicity, led to the high “Duveen prices” and also to a movement of Italian Renaissance art, as well as other European art objects, towards America. It was as if they picked up where the English Grand Tour of Italy left off; the same mercantilism and screwing of the buyer, except here it was a bit more institutionalized and the money was bigger.
A typical trick of Duveen-Berenson was using original Renaissance art of minor quality as a ready-made, before Duchamp, a generic type of painting, a bit banal, gussied it up, renamed the painter and flipped it at good mark-up. Otherwise, the reasoning went, only paintings that have little risk of being overvalued would be traded, so they invented this whole area of “grey goods” ; Here enters Bernard Berenson who declares that a painting is a Giorgione or some other known master, and worth a high price ; enter wealthy Yankee who forks over the dough, but never would have purchased it had been an attribution “school of” or “in the style of” by some hack of that epoch. A lot of mediocre paintings by second rate students of made there way onto the East Coast. Problem-reaction-solution. Enter Berenson who would be Duveen’s independent expert who could ensure that Duveen’s high prices were valid, and at least not lose on a sale. They never though of questioning Berenson’s arm’s length relationship, they just wanted a certificate with his endorsement.
Also, the secret collaboration between Berenson, the Italian Renaissance expert and Duveen ,were still instrumental in bringing Italian art of the best quality to the States. It gave rise to important collections, and the habits of conspicuous consumption, to provide examples of a lifestyle of conspicuous waste meant high prices were tolerated and Berenson who had a sweet tooth for the good life was not to disappoint them. The secret agreement was a gold mine for Berenson who made a fee of 25% of the net profits, substantial since it was all trading. It is surprising no one questioned how an “art scholar” and academic could live such an opulent lifestyle with a villa in Italy of substantial proportions…
( see link at end) …But Berenson, for all his corruption, remains a brilliant, intriguing, contradictory figure. He had come from a Jewish family who had emigrated from Lithuania when he was a boy. He became quintessentially American in that he completely invented himself, the first American connoisseur. He made a fortune as a connoisseur and became world famous. It is well known that he tried to hide his ties to the art market and to Duveen, who paid him a high commission for every picture he authenticated and that he felt anguished by this decision to make this secret contract. In the Duveen archives, I found illuminating letters, where Berenson tries to convince even one of the Duveens that he is not a man of business, but a scholar. But, immediately after, maybe even in the same letter, he tells Duveen that in buying a particular picture the dealer is making a stupid business mistake. Berenson, of course, knew the art market better than anyone. Yet, I could see that when Berenson was claiming to Duveen that he was a gentleman and a scholar, he really wanted to convince himself. He longed to be one of the rich and privileged WASPs who were his friends at Harvard. Berenson had been ashamed that his father, an intellectual, was forced to work as a peddler in Boston, and it seems he felt that if he were to admit his role as a dealer he would in some sense have failed to escape his background. Read More:http://www.cynthiasaltzman.com/about.html
What makes Bernard Berenson fascinating is his presentation of himself as an erudite scholar, the Talmud of the art world, the Sage of Safed. But he was a wanker; a fake scout for collectors and earning commission on what he recommended. This was the fact with Isabella Stewart Gardner, a very decent woman with her husband’s substantial bank account behind her. It seemed he would occasionally be ethical with her, only to do the whore performance on other pieces. He made 5% on the price she paid plus all his price manipulations. Buy from dealer for a buck, and sell to her for two etc.
When a picture was transacted, Berenson would send the purchaser a written certificate. For this service he could get a lump sum of $10K. No wonder Berenson wanted his secret arrangements to remain hidden. Joseph Duveen considered the expertise of a Berenson to be worth it. In fact, he would preach to his clients that they should not buy and Italian painting withoutenson’s seal of approval. Of course, neither disclosed they were working together.
Despite all the ripoffs, American buyers got some great paintings that probably would never had gone to America. Berenson was at the right time and place to make his killing. Americans got paintings, but they paid through the nose, but then they had money to burn. Again, the problem of tying art to spirituality to commerce was evident in Berenson’s conflict of interest where scholarship too second sitting to attaching brand names to paintings, since the difference between a work by Giovanni Bellini or, by his workshop or one of his students, was a major factor on the sales price, and Berenson’s take.
( see link at end) :But Berenson’s defensiveness and his reluctance to face his own contradictions also tended to cut him off from developments within his own field: the study and criticism of Italian art of the distant past. In 1924 Duveen held a show of Berenson-attributed old masters, bought by American collectors, in his New York gallery. Some of these attributions were by then looking particularly optimistic. The art historian Richard Offner wrote an article for The Arts magazine, mildly but firmly questioning a Cimabue, a Daddi, a Fra Angelico. It would be twenty years before Berenson spoke to Offner again. The art world is a nutrient broth for paranoid disputes and imagined slights, but even by its standards of conduct Berenson’s was unusual. His ferocity may have been more closely connected with the nature of his thought than is generally supposed.
In general, Berenson’s perceptions about art were not easy to debate. Intuitions rarely are; they do not partake of the nature of argument, and Berenson staked his entire career on the superiority of his eye, backed up by an incomparable memory bank. Any questioning of his conclusions was therefore apt to be treated as a personal attack, and so he tended to see other art historians as barbarians shaking their bill-hooks and uttering hoarse dialectical threats below the walls of Altamura. The donnée of his work was that the value of painting lay in its ability to enhance self-consciousness, by means of intense increments of experience—flashes of vision and delight. These moments were to Berenson, as to anyone fortunate enough to have them, all but indescribable. Like his passionate delight in nature, they came close to mystical experience. They disclosed the “It-ness” of which he often spoke—the irreducible, self-manifesting essence of reality.
Nevertheless Berenson felt obliged to give this oceanic pleasure of the eye, the goal of the aesthete’s quest, the trappings of a system. Hence the awkward formulations of his critical writing—”tactile values,” “ideated sensations” and the rest. The idea of “tactile values” as expounded by Berenson sounded impressive but was merely a slogan: it was to illusion what Clive Bell’s idea of “significant form” was to abstraction. It derived from a crude physiological notion of how the brain interprets space and passes that interpretation to the body. All it stood for, if analyzed, was a convincing impression of three-dimensionality. Nevertheless Berenson insisted on applying this concept as a touchstone, quite mechanically, as though it were an arguable guide to quality in art. At the same time he despised iconographical studies as mere ground work at best and, at worst, a threat to his interests: hence his loathing of Erwin Panofsky, and of the kind of work that Panofsky and his Warburg Institute colleagues pursued. Read More:http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1979/dec/20/only-in-america/?pagination=false