|Updated March 23, 2005|
|Art, Armor and Tapestry,
Collecting on the Grand Scale
| An underlying current throughout a study of a man like Clarence H. Mackay is an interest in discovering what made him tick. So far, I have not discovered or even heard of any body of personal writings, such as letters or diaries left by him. People who worked for him, such as Charles Hechler and William Pickering, were obligated to maintain absolute silence about the family's personal and business affairs. Newspapers and magazines of Clarence Mackay's day reported observations of his activities but this still reveals little about the man himself.
One special clue we have about Clarence Mackay is the fact that he was a prodigious spender when it came to collecting art, armor and tapestry. What follows is a lengthy quote from S. N. Behman's book, Duveen, The Story of the Most Spectacular Art Dealer of All Time. If you are interested in what made the multi-millionairs of the late 19th Century and the early 20th Century throw their normal sense of frugality and caution to the wind, read on...this is very revealing.
| "Philosphers interested in the Duveen Era engaged in a good deal of subtle speculation on one point, and it is still a tantalizing mystery: How did it come about that the great money men of that era gradually came to accept Duveen's simple, unworldly view that art was more important than money? One theory is that Duveen had inculcated into them the idea that art was priceless and that when you pay for the infinite with the finite, you are indeed getting a bargain. Perhaps it was for this reason that they felt better when they paid a lot. It gave them the assurance of acquiring genuineness, rarity, uniqueness. A lesser dealer had a Rossellino bust for which he had paid $22,000. Joseph E. Widener went in to look at it. The dealer needed money and offered it for $25,000, thinking to tempt Widener into a quick purchase. The moderateness of the price was fatal. 'Find me a better one,' said Widener. Duveen would have asked for a quarter of a million, and got it. The same thing happened, with the same bust, when the dealer showed it to Clarence Mackay. 'Find me a better one,' said Mackay. Of one of the most wary and haggling and penny-pinching of his clients, who in his dealings with Duveen penny-pinched himself out of a great many millions of dollars, it has been remarked that only Duveen could have inflated such caution to such abandon. 'Oh, well,' an intimate of this man has said, 'he liked to deal with Duveen because Duveen was at the top. It was like tooling around in a custom-built Rolls-Royce.' Duveen's clients preferred to pay huge sums, and Duveen made them happy. A dealer offered a room to Hearst for $50,000; Hearst spurned it. Duveen offered it to him later for $200,000 and he bought it with gratitude. A man called up a New York dealer one day and asked him if he wanted to buy a rug. The 'rug' turned out to be a fine Boucher tapestry. The dealer paid a rug price for it and then offered it to Michael Dreicer, the jeweller, for $15,000. Dreicer, who had once sold a clock for $60,000 and was accustomed to selling necklaces for $100,000, was suspicious of anything you could get for a mere $15,000. 'Get me something better,' he said. The New York dealer sold the Boucher to a Paris dealer, who eventually sold it to Dreicer, when the latter was abroad, for $70,000. After Dreicer brought it back, the first dealer pointed out to him that it was the same tapestry he himself had offered him for $15,000. Dreicer was a little bewildered at the coincidence, and a little ashamed. 'In Paris, you go crazy,' he said lamely. Duveen gave his clients a perpetual sense of being in Paris. In his dealing with them, he inspired them with a feeling of release; they could throw their customary business practices to the four winds and go on a kind of jag of prodigality, and in good company; they could go haywire about beauty. He substituted the liberation of reckless spending for the austerities of hoarding. The inherited Puritanism of many of these men made them feel guilty about ordinary spending, but spending for art could be rationalized morally.
The millionairs of the Duveen Era were all dressed up, but they really had no place to go. Duveen supplied a favored few of them with a destination. The private lives of these sad tycoons were often bitter; their children and their family life disappointed them. The fathers had to much to give; the returns were often in inverse ratio to the size of the gifts. They knew that they were ruining their children and yet they didn't know how to stop it. Their children made disasterous marriages, got killed in racing cars, had to pay blackmail to avoid scandal. But with the works of art it was different. They asked for nothing. They were rewarding. They shed their radiance, and it was lovely, soothing light. You could take them or leave them, and when you had visitors you could bask in the admiration the pictures and sculptures excited, which was directed toward you even more subtly than toward them, as if you yourself had gathered them and, even, created them. The works of art became their children...
But there was more to it than desolation at home, more than the privilage of expensiveness. The ambition of the Duveen millionairs to own famous works of art and to be associated in men's minds with the artists became the controlling obsession of their lives. Frick, Mellon, and Kress practically gave up their business careers to devote their energies to acquiring art. What was behind it? What were the ultimate reasons? Expensiveness helped, the desolation helped, just as acquisitiveness helped, the impulse for conspicuous consumption helped, the social cachet helped, the Medici complex helped, but in their consuming avidity there was something more: a hint of desperation, of lonliness, of futility, even of fear. Was it that these men, whose material conquests were unlimited felt the need, as they grew older, to ally themselves with reputations that were solid and unassailable and, as far as the mind could project, eternal? The paintings in the National gallery are Kresses and Mellons and Wideners, and before that many of them were Duveens, but if you trace them far enough back, they are Botticellis and Raphaels and Giottos and Fra Filippo Lippis. These old names had lasted a long time. It was reassuring..." [Duveen millionairs could sense their part in creating a lasting legacy. Art was like nothing else in their lives...and our museums and millions of museum visitors have been the great beneficiaries of their magnificent obsessions]
| Clarence Mackay was a Duveen millionaire. His brother was killed in a racing accident in 1895, he inherited huge responsibilities in 1902 when his father died unexpectedly, he got cancer in 1909 at the young age of 35, his own marriage to the beautiful Katherine fell apart in 1910, he viewed his daughter Ellin's marriage to Irving Berlin in 1926 to be a social scandal. His mother died in 1928. The stock market crash in 1929 almost wiped him out. Financially, things went from bad to worse between 1929 and 1932. The Postal Telegraph Company was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1935. His cancer came back in 1936. And he died in 1938. But his legacy lives
on in museums in New York, Worcester, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Leeds (Great Britain) and elsewhere.