Joseph, whose life and exploits are extensively recounted in Meryle Secrest’s hefty 2005 biography Duveen: A Life in Art, was the oldest of 15 siblings. He dropped out of high school to help with his father’s antique business. Joseph’s uncle Henry, who also aided in the family’s blossoming business, was on assignment in New York when he wrote a letter back to the Duveens that read: “I like Amerika [sic] very well. It is a first class money making country, it is a fine rich country, it beats England in everything, you will be astonished what it is like, it is A one.” Joseph’s father wrote back telling Henry to find a shop to rent and the Duveens set up their first New York location; Uncle Henry remained stateside to sell the merchandise Joel and Joseph were acquiring. Then, in 1879, they traded up their shop in Hull for a storefront in London. Within a few years, after garnering illustrious customers, including the prince and princess of Wales, Joseph’s father (who had grown obsessed not only with fine objects, but also with their surroundings) had become the “most sought-after decorator” in London, according to Secrest.
After a bout with pneumonia, Joel Duveen began leaving England every autumn to escape the cold, not returning until the following Easter. This meant that by 1900, with his father gone six months out of the year and Uncle Henry living in New York, Joseph was free to run the family business as if it were his own, long before it actually was.