Few dealers have made as significant a contribution to the art market as Joseph Duveen, who, in the first half of the 20th century, made a fortune by selling Old Master works to the ultra-wealthy. “Duveen—who became Lord Duveen of Millbank before he died in 1939, at the age of sixty-nine—noticed that Europe had plenty of art and America had plenty of money, and his entire astonishing career was the product of that simple observation,” wrote S. N. Behrman in a 1951 New Yorker article titled “The Days of Duveen.”
That magazine piece is among the inspirations for Wes Anderson’s newest film, The French Dispatch, which concerns three journalists and their famous stories. In homage to the New Yorker, Anderson’s French Dispatch features several discrete segments, each of which includes a film within a film. The first of those segments is “The Concrete Masterpiece,” in which J. K. L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), a writer for the French Dispatch, introduces us to the art dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody).
Duveen and Cadazio share little resemblance, other than that they viewed themselves as arbiters of value. Duveen shaped the tastes of the most legendary American millionaires of the time, selling to Andrew Mellon, J. P. Morgan, Henry Clay Frick and Benjamin Altman. Duveen practically invented the trick of buying pieces for such astronomical prices that he was able to convince his clients that these works were highly valuable. According to the New Yorker profile, once when Duveen bought an aristocratic portrait from a titled Englishwoman, he persuaded her to sell it to him for £25,000, as opposed to the £18,000 she had initially asked. He was aware of the exorbitant price he could sell it for, and couldn’t in good conscience rob the woman. He also knew that, in raising his own offer, he could later demand a greater sum for the painting. In effect, he had driven up the value of his own inventory simply through shrewd maneuvering.
Duveen earned millions of dollars by accruing crown jewels from Europe and bringing them across the pond to the U.S. to sell to the newly rich, who lacked family heirlooms of their own. If Duveen’s life story now seems somewhat stale, it’s because we too easily forget just what a controversial figure he was. Between his flair for drama and his intense competitiveness, he got himself into all sorts of trouble. In 1921, one client made the mistake of showing Duveen a 16th-century Italian painting he was thinking of buying from another dealer. Duveen took one look at the painting, flared his nostrils, and shook his head sadly. “I sniff fresh paint,” he reportedly said. The implication that the work was a fake resulted in years of litigation and a settlement that cost Duveen $575,000—the equivalent of $14 million today.
Like Duveen, Cadazio is a wily seller, willing to pay any price necessary to corner markets and assert his own ideas, but Anderson isn’t necessarily interested in historical accuracy. Where Duveen was charming, Cadazio is aggressive, a bad boy with an edge. It’s hard to imagine someone like Cadazio milling around with the likes of Mellon or Frick, or the Americans of the early oil boom.
In The French Dispatch, Cadazio is in prison for committing tax evasion. While doing time, Cadazio comes across a painting created by the fictional Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) during a therapeutic art class. Wild strokes of pink, purple and red form the glowing center of the painting before its borders fade into black. Titled Simon Naked Cell Black J Hobby Room, the work is billed within the film as the first truly modern masterpiece.
Rosenthaler makes these abstract works while his warden—Simone (Léa Seydoux), who is also his lover—poses in the nude for him. (The artist is in prison for beheading two men, one by accident, the other in self defense.) Cadazio buys this painting for much more than Rosenthaler is asking for it—a page out of Duveen’s playbook—and the dealer brings it to his uncles with a plan.
Cadazio proposes that the family stop selling Old Masters and start pushing contemporary art. To convince his uncles of Rosenthaler’s talent, he shows them a picture of a sparrow that he drew in 45 seconds. Cadazio labels it “perfect.” Rosenthaler could make representative art, but he thinks the abstract work is better. “And I sort of agree with him,” Cadazio says. After touring the painting around, Cadazio drums up a fervor for more of Rosenthaler’s work. After three years of waiting, Cadazio arranges a viewing of Rosenthaler’s new masterpieces for his clients. They go on view not in a gallery but inside the prison where Rosenthaler is an inmate. In typical Anderson fashion, slapstick comedy ensues.
At the heart of characters like Duveen or Cadazio is an age-old question: Do dealers love art as much as they say, or are they really just enamored of the money they make? With Duveen, one could never be sure. In his New Yorker profile, Behrman wrote of Duveen, “Each picture he had to sell, each tapestry, each piece of sculpture was the greatest since the last one and until the next one.”
With Cadazio, the answer to that question is more clear-cut. When Cadazio enters the prison, he immediately judges Rosenthaler’s new works to be a successes. But there’s a small problem: Rosenthaler has painted the works directly onto the prison wall. Cadazio takes back his compliments and insults the artist, because after all, how can anyone sell a prison wall? What a failure!
But Anderson offers his dealer a kind of redemption: Cadazio learns to love the work he cannot sell. There’s fairy-tale reward for his change of heart, as a famous American collector, Upshur “Maw” Clampette (Lois Smith), agrees to pay to have the work airlifted from the prison and placed in her collection in Kansas. It’s unlikely that even someone of Duveen’s stature could have gotten the likes J. P. Morgan to go to such a length for an amazing work of art.