Like any top salesperson, Joseph Duveen targeted the most promising prospects and then sought to cultivate a relationship with them. He prepared diligently before making his move.
Duveen, a prominent British art dealer in the early 20th century, wanted to win Andrew Mellon as a client. Rather than simply contact the American banker and invite him to buy art, Duveen preferred to proceed in carefully plotted steps.
First, he studied Mellon’s public statements and observed the famous financier’s business dealings. Then Duveen role-played with his butler (who pretended to be Mellon), rehearsing the kind of conversations that would help him build rapport.
The next step was to meet Mellon. The opportunity arose in 1921, when Duveen happened to be staying at the same London hotel as the 66-year-old Mellon.
Duveen’s valet alerted his boss that Mellon was about to leave the hotel, so Duveen raced down the hall and managed to squeeze into the same elevator. He introduced himself to the banker and said, “I’m on my way to the National Gallery. My great refreshment is to look at pictures.” Mellon accompanied Duveen and, by day’s end, wanted to buy from Duveen’s collection.
While they did occasional business together in the 1920s, Duveen’s real coup occurred in 1936. He knew that Mellon was bequeathing his collection to the new National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and he figured Mellon would be buying more art to supplement his contribution to the museum.
Duveen also knew that Mellon was living in an apartment near Dupont Circle in Washington. So he rented a unit one floor below and filled it with art that he wanted Mellon to buy.
He gave Mellon the key and invited him to view the collection anytime. Duveen did not live there, but hired a caretaker to assist when Mellon came down in his dressing gown and slippers to enjoy the paintings. Ultimately, Mellon bought all 42 pieces of art in the apartment for $21 million—the biggest art sale ever at the time.
— Adapted from The Art of the Sale, Philip Delves Broughton, The Penguin Press.