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Andrew W. Mellon, the Pittsburgh-born robber baron and disastrous Treasury secretary, gave us the National Gallery of Art with a $40 million donation of paintings and sculptures. But before Raphael’s Saint George and the Dragon or Rembrandt’s An Old Lady With a Book made it to Washington, they first had to pass through the hands of one of history’s greatest art dealers: Joseph Duveen. In Duveen: A Life in Art, Meryle Secrest draws an exuberant portrait of the intrigue-addicted businessman who spent the first four decades of the 20th century transporting hundreds of masterpieces from the drawing rooms of Old Europe to the collections of America’s elite. Born in England, the son of a wealthy antique dealer, Duveen was bred to be competitive. And with “a retentive memory, an instinctive eye for quality, a gift of persuasion, and a boyish eagerness, even effervescence, that captivated everyone,” he was able to exploit the powerful desire of America’s ruling class to possess mankind’s greatest treasures. Learning about Duveen’s famous auction performances or his uncanny ability to drive up the price of a painting over a deceptively polite dinner might not—and probably should not—make you any more awed by the gallery’s Vermeers, Titians, or Gainsboroughs on your next visit. (After all, art isn’t all about money.) But Secrest’s book will make you appreciate some of the passions these paintings excited in a not-too-distant era. Secrest is in town at 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 10, at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 364-1919. (Paul Morton)