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Gorer v Lever: Edgar Gorer and William Hesketh Lever - page 4

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Gorer v Duveen

Like Duveen, Gorer seemed to court controversy and the two would meet head-on in the months leading up to Gorer's death on the Lusitania. By 1911, Gorer was making noticeable inroads into the American market. It was at around this time he established a working relationship with jeweller Michael Dreicer in New York. 82 Dreicer & Co. was by 1911 a highly successful and fashionable jeweller with premises at 560 Fifth Avenue, an address, in terms of prestige, on a par with Bond Street.83 It seems likely that Gorer may have had existing contacts with Dreicers through his jeweller father, Solomon, although Michael Dreicer was known as a connoisseur of Chinese jade and porcelain. From about 1911, Gorer's letterhead advertised Dreicer as the 'Sole Agent for the United States and Canada' and it was there that Gorer exhibited the George R. Davies collection in 1913.84 He also planned to exhibit the Henry Sampson collection at Dreicer's and it was for this reason that Edgar embarked upon his journey to New York in January 1915. However, at the back of his mind was another matter: one that would engage Gorer and his admired rivals Henry and Joseph Joel Duveen in open conflict.

Unfortunately for Gorer, the controversy surrounding the pair of figures depicting Vajrapani which had been a part of the Richard Bennett Collection and which Gorer apparently labelled the 'Malevolent Gods', continued to dog him. The sale of the remainder of the Bennett Collection returned by Lever took place in New York during 1913 and included the Vajrapani figures. Gorer believed that his American rivals were using the disputed attribution of the figures to try and 'kill' his best sales and undermine his reputation.85 It came to a head early in 1914 when Joseph Joel Duveen was alleged to have condemned as fake a yellow-ground vase that Gorer was about to sell to one of America's most influential collectors, Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919). According to newspaper reports, Duveen said to Frick and his wife: 'That vase is not a genuine antique, does not belong to the Kang Hsi period, but has been manufactured within the last seven years, and is an imitation of the genuine article, and is spurious. Gorer has been imposed upon.'86 As Gorer pointed out, this statement not only questioned the veracity of his dealership, but also his knowledge as a specialist. It also destroyed his relationship with Frick, who, Gorer claimed, refused to buy a further vase on offer to him because of Duveen's criticisms and so deprived him of this and any future profits.87 Gorer cited other occasions when J. J. Duveen made disparaging remarks of his abilities, such as when he said to Carmen Messmore: 'Gorer knows nothing about porcelains. The real judges are ourselves, my Uncle Henry and me, and we intend stopping Gorer putting these fakes on the market.'88 Messmore was also witness to Duveen's re-iterated allegation that the two Vajrapani figures were 'modern…and not over fifteen years old.'89

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Gorer's case against Henry Duveen, for which he was claiming $75,000 in damages, rested upon a single but similar allegation that Duveen had declared that a pair of green vases Gorer was selling were modern and that Gorer was 'dealing in fake things.'90 The case was to be heard in the U.S. Supreme Court because Gorer's reputation was being impugned specifically in America. The New York Times of 8th May carried a rebuttal of these allegations from Duveen Brothers. Both Joseph J. and Henry Duveen claimed that they were not trying to discredit Gorer or undermine his standing among collectors but simply giving expert advice to their clients, which was 'a major part of their business.'91 Duveen's counsel claimed that clients often requested expert advice from Duveen Brothers and this was given 'without regard to the identity of the owner of the objects, whom they frequently do not know', and that it was their duty to ensure the genuineness of objects to prevent the undermining of the market.92 As the report astutely noted, by intimation, this should also be a concern of Gorer. The issue of whether Joseph and Henry Duveen had specifically condemned the articles mentioned by Gorer in his lawsuit, was neatly sidestepped: 'they will be the subject matter of the litigation, and will properly be dealt with in court and at the proper time.'93

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Gorer never had his day in court. At the time that the New York Times report was published, he was already dead. He and a group of other British art dealers, including Gerald Arthur Letts, Martin van Straaten and Frank Partridge, had decided to return to Britain on the Lusitania departing from New York on 1st May, 1915. Seven days later, at 2.10pm off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland, the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine, the U-20. Within 18 minutes the ship had sunk. Of the 1,959 passengers and crew on board, only 761 survived, one of which was Gorer's friend and companion on the voyage, Frank Partridge.94 James Henry Duveen relates a characteristically dramatic account of Gorer's selflessness during the last minutes of the sinking, giving away both of his lifebelts.95 Eye-witness accounts tell of his bravery in saving opera singer Josephine Brandell, to whom Gorer gave one of his lifebelts and told her to be brave.96 Edgar Gorer's body was never recovered. The case against Duveen Brothers collapsed.

Despite certain doom-laden claims of Gorer's near ruin, his Estate at his death was valued at $215,760 in America alone while in his Will, his widow, Rachel, was left an outright payment of £5,000 and income for life from a trust fund of £50,000.97 He also held 'regular stock' valued at $162,287. Details of his 'half ownership' of stock with Dreicer & Co., which included the residue of the Sampson and Davies collections, also indicate how it was possible for Gorer to outlay considerable sums on the purchase of individual pieces and collections.98 As if to haunt Gorer in his grave, the pair of Vajrapani figures top the list of items deemed of uncertain authenticity, along with the yellow ground vase and the pair of green vases, implicated by the Duveen Brothers.99

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James Henry Duveen described Edgar Gorer as 'a great-hearted London dealer…who was a bold winner and a brave loser' - a generous epitaph.100 Gorer's human qualities were recalled in the short obituary in the Burlington Magazine.101 It praised him for his equitable and far-seeing mind, acknowledged his support for the Magazine in the past and his acceptance of the need for it to exercise independence as regards its endorsement of the adverts it carried - a reference no doubt to Gorer's run-in with R. L. Hobson.102 From today's perspective, it is more difficult to assess Gorer as a dealer in Chinese art. He was perhaps the first dealer to promote himself as a specialist in Chinese and Japanese art at the outset, eventually concentrating upon Chinese art. The range of works he sold were however limited. In line with the prevailing taste of the period before the First World War, Gorer dealt in porcelains of the late-17th and 18th centuries together with 18th century jades and hardstones. Objects he dated to earlier periods, such as Song and Ming, were highly suspect at a time when there were few verifiable examples available in the West. Had he lived, he would have experienced a dramatic shift in both the type of objects available and the range in periods. Even by 1915, when R. L. Hobson published his Chinese Pottery and Porcelain, examples of Han and Tang ceramics were already coming out of China and impacting upon both the private collector and museum institutions, as were a host of other artefacts.103 Whether Edgar Gorer would have been able to make the shift and encompass this greater range and diversity will never be known, but every indication is that he would. Nevertheless, there was, as Gerald Reitlinger noted, 'something symbolical in the manner of his death, since the torpedoing of the Lusitania was destined to bring the whole world into the war and in the end destroy three empires. Of course, it did not destroy the millionaire empires, but somehow millionaire taste emerged with a new look. Henceforward a hostess, who changed her walls, ceiling, carpets, furniture and curtains to celadon green in order to match two Ming dishes, would have to hide even the telephone directory.' 104

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  1. At the end of 1910, Gorer was exhibiting at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, confirming a 1911 date for his link-up with Dreicer & Co. See 'Chinese Porcelains on View', New York Times, 18 November, 1910, p.10.

  2. Dreicer & Co., was established by Michael Dreicer's father, Jacob and became known for its Parisian style cut diamonds. It was at its most successful between 1910 and 1921, when Michael Dreicer died. Cartier's took over the stock of the company in 192.4

  3. 'Chinese Porcelain in the Davies Collection', The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol.23, No.123, June, 1913, p.p.162-67; 'Chinese Porcelain. Purchase of a Well-Known Collection', The Times, 20 February, 1913, p.9.

  4. Duveen, Secrets, p.269.

  5. 'Rival Sues Duveens'.

  6. 'Rival Sues Duveens'.

  7. 'Rival Sues Duveens'. Carmen Messmore was a fellow dealer from the Knoedler Galleries, New York.

  8. 'Rival Sues Duveens'.

  9. 'Rival Sues Duveens'.

  10. 'Experts, Not Rivals is Duveen Defense', New York Times, 8 May, 1915, p.5.

  11. 'Experts, Not Rivals'.

  12. 'Experts, Not Rivals'.

  13. For a detailed account of the Lusitania and her last voyage, see J. Kent Layton, Lusitania: An Illustrated Biography of the Ship of Splendour, 2007.

  14. Duveen, Secrets, p.p.270-71.

  15. The Lusitania Resource:

  16. 'Gorer's Estate: $215,760. Estate of London Art Dealer Lost on Lusitania Appraised', New York Times, 27 July, 1915, p.18.

  17. 'Gorer's Estate'.

  18. 'Gorer's Estate'.

  19. Duveen, Secrets, p.271

  20. 'Mr Edgar Gorer', The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol.27, No.147, June, 1915, p.128.

  21. 'Mr Edgar Gorer', p.128.

  22. See R.L. Hobson, Chinese Pottery and Porcelain, London, 1915.

  23. Reitlinger, Economics, Vol.2, p.215.