One should not speak ill of the dead, but when I read Clive Devenish’s paean to his father in the front of the catalogue for the Tom Devenish Sale at Sotheby’s last week, I was, quite simply appalled. Tom Devenish, as portrayed by his older son, was a genius, a man of inestimable talent. I guess I might say the same thing if I had been left a nice estate, but the truth is very far from what he wrote.
Years ago, I spied a very good tripod table at Christie’s East, Christie’s lesser outlet on 67th St. that had fairly regular sales, often with very good items. This tripod table had a raised gadroon border and was spectacular. I was a friend to Tom, and I thought he was to me, so when he called and asked if there was anything in the sale, I told him about the table. He promised me that he would not bid for it. I was on the phone to make the bid but when it came up, he was in the room and bought it for $7,000. When I confronted him on it, he lied to me and said that he did not know I was on the phone.
How many times Tom did this to other people I am unable to say, although I know of several similar stories. I was certainly naive and the tale is an oft told tale among London dealers who would cut their rivals throats. But to pretend friendship in order to use someone is not only low, it is contemptible. I had helped Tom a great deal in a great many ways. I was thunderstruck by his greed. I would happily have bought a half share. He did not share with anyone in any way, ever.
I would like to say that his taste was good and that he had particular knowledge, but what he had was tenacity and an ability to suss out what others wanted. I will never forget the Moller sale at Sotheby’s when he knew he was bidding against Mallett for a mahogany bookcase, which Tom bought and which they eventually bought from him. I would like to say it was his courage that made him bid so much, but he knew that if Mallett wanted the piece, they would have to come through him and that meant a profit. Clever of him to figure this out and smart of him to persist, but none of this makes him a dealer with taste or knowldege.
He was a reprehensible figure with no redeeming graces, brutal and self serving. I am sorry I ever spent any time with him. He was not so much a disgrace to the English furniture business, but a disgrace to all those who, mistakenly, cared for or about him.