The Elegant Architecture of Fifth Avenue’s Past

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The Elegant Architecture of Fifth Avenue’s Past
The Duveen Brothers gallery stood at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 56th Street until early 1953, when this photograph was taken / © Office for Metropolitan History

Another pearl in the strand of elegance that once characterized 57th Street was, like Bonwit Teller, a half-block away: the 1913 Duveen Brothers gallery at Fifth Avenue and 56th Street. One of the most sumptuous structures ever built in New York, it was the headquarters of Joseph Duveen, one of the most famous art dealers of the early 20th century.

Joseph Duveen was born into a family of European art and antiques dealers with operations in Paris, London and New York. Taxes are an important concern to importers, and in 1910 Joseph and three brothers were charged in the United States with massive tax fraud, accused of lowballing values to reduce customs duties. They paid a fine of $1.2 million and barely avoided jail, but remained among the most prominent dealers in New York, along with Knoedler, Durand-Ruel and several others.

And Joseph was the most prominent of the Duveen family, good with a quip, quick with an opinion and extremely eager to become the most important old master dealer in the United States. He developed relationships with people with an appetite for art and the wallet to support it, including Henry Frick, Andrew Mellon and John D. Rockefeller. ….

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