BELIEVE IN ART; BELIEVE IN EXPERTS OPINION EVEN WHEN WRONG!

EXPERTS CAN BURY YOU OR MAKE YOU

For over thirty years I dealt with experts at auctions, with experts on artists and with artists themselves. Some are great, others are difficult and some are really stroppy and impossible to work with. Here is a case when I was a total amateur,  a total ignaramous but trusted and took the leaf of hope on the ocean of disaster.

  

 

The first heartbreak at Sotheby’s

July 1985, Sotheby’s London  

I deliberated, I procrastinated and agonised over whether to sell or keep the Jongkind - the first major painting I had invested in. Day after day, week after week, I questioned myself.  I asked other people’s opinion.  The only reason to sell was my burning desire to learn the business of trading art at the highest level, if it was possible. Keeping the painting would have meant an end to that dream.

Reality can be destroyed, hope can be buried but never allow a dream to die away.

Thus off to Sotheby’s I directed myself to consign the Jongkind and keep the dream alive. It was early July 1985 and the time to consign art for the autumn sales. Which sale and which department was the question, the impressionist or the 19th century department? There was no significant headache in making a decision.  Impressionist art was the most popular section of the art market, which also achieved the strongest sales.  Furthermore, Jongkind’s best prices were achieved in impressionist sales.

The timing of consignment was important.  I had already bought a pretty Henri Lebasque painting in San Francisco, also marked out for the same Sotheby’s sale.  I knew already that if I consigned two or three paintings at the same time and with the same auction and experts in charge, they would look upon my business more favourably.  More business offered through them, meant more money for them in commissions both from seller and buyer!  Such knowledge and policy I employed on many occasions and that won me the experts’ favour and respect! Experts do give favours, and these we all need at times! This fact will become more evident in the stories to follow, but it is not a rule, I might add!

To own a four thousand pounds painting in 1985 was a new and major experience for me. To be driving to Sotheby’s ready to consign it for sale was emotionally draining and scary. I was made of hard stuff, but this experience needed additional guts, nerve and belief in what I was doing. Did I have a master’s painting or did I believe I had what was never there? That was no time for doubts, but inexperience and the cost of the painting caused me ineffable insecurity and worry.

Anxious to hear the experts’ opinion and their valuation I arrived at Sotheby’s convinced that Jongkind would change the course of business and perhaps my life.  The omens were good - the weather was great, the city of London beaming in the summer sunshine.  Certain that the painting was by the artist, I dreamt of miracles and millions on my way to the centre of London.

Melanie Glore was a young expert in the Impressionist department of Sotheby’s.  I had seen her on a couple of occasions taking auctions and I was impressed by her cool manner and efficiency. The formalities of introduction over, she turned to the painting with immense interest.  She kept looking for a couple of minutes at the front, which seemed hours to me. She didn’t say anything.  She turned the painting expertly to the back. She looked at the support, the old canvas and condition.  Back to the front, she checked the signatures, once, twice, then again.  She touched and felt the paint. Two minutes were centuries for me let alone four and five! The apprentice was learning from the expert. It was invaluable teaching time and it was free.

What is she doing, I kept wondering?  What is the issue?  Everything was a novelty.  I kept looking, watching and noting. She was a specialist, an expert in the most important department of Sotheby’s.  Speak, please! Tell me something!

“This is a very interesting painting Mr Constant…”

 

 

 

 

WE ALL MAKE MISTAKES!!

TO ERR IS HUMAN

Buying at auction is very common these days. Auction houses, the important ones, make serious efforts to guarantee the authenticity of any work they sell and represent sellers and buyers in the best way. Unfortunately they make mistakes some times that are indeed hard to overcome in the first place.

This is a case of a work that was genuinely presented, signed properly and of the period, yet, the experts declared it not by the artist.

Was it or not?

 

Major auctions make cataloguing errors

The likelihood of buying a fake or wrongly ascribed painting privately is high. The chance of that happening at a major auction is limited but one cannot exclude it completely. Even though catalogued paintings are diligently checked and researched for accuracy of description by teams of experts, some escape rigorous authentication and are unfortunately sold erroneously as genuine and by the artist ascribed to them.

I had a couple of lucky escapes in 1985, which included the Jongkind. No fakes and no wrongly ascribed paintings of importance in 1986.  By 1987 I had enough money to make several investments, which I was trying to do as if it were an emergency! It is evident to me now, looking back critically that there were several problems in my investment strategy and many lessons had to be taken on board and learned well. In hindsight I was an immature investor because I did not not follow these core principles:

·         Wait and be patient in your investments.  That is the best policy as there are always new bargains appearing on the market and better opportunities to sell if the investment is given a breathing period of time.

·         It is not the number of investments that matter but the quality. I made twenty-five investments in 1987 most of which are not worth mentioning, except a few referred to here.

Christie’s, King Street, 19th Century Paintings sale of secondary paintings in February 1987 included a couple of interesting paintings for me. I was still attached to that kind of art rather than the more profitable modern and impressionist categories. I was thinking with my heart and emotions rather than pure maths and numbers. Should emotions of like or dislike enter the mind of a true entrepreneur?  Perhaps not, but art is a different sphere and a different world. Emotions have to play a role, like and dislike has to be part of the trade. Money comes later, or should it come first and before anything else?  I suppose it all depends on why you are investing in art - for business, for pleasure, or both?

I researched the Christie’s sale well looking into many possible investments but finally ended up with a Barbizon school painting by Henri Harpignies who was selling very well in New York, and an orientalist work by Eugene Alexis Girardet, a market also doing well across the Atlantic.  The idea was to send both paintings to New York immediately aiming to make at least a 50% return.

 

Asking for the opinion of an expert on an artist is no shame

Henri Harpignies

Another  genuine example

 

 

(French, [1819-1916], Successful landscape artist of the Barbizon school working in the second half of the 19th century alongside the Impressionists. Auction price range £2000- 30,000)

6th February 1987, Christie’s London

The Henri Harpignies painting was an attractive landscape composition of good size. I was not that familiar with the artist’s work but Christie’s knew better, and so I bought the painting on trust investing £2200 in it. The painting needed attention and framing, so I took it to the best restorer and framer in London at a cost of twelve hundred pounds, an enormous sum of money in those days.

That was a serious mistake. I should not have spent £1200 restoring and framing a painting, which at best was worth about £4000. That was trade suicide.  In general the rules are simple:

·         Frames should not cost more than 10% of the total selling price of a work of art.

·         Spend no more than 20% of the value of any work of art on restorations.

·         If you are reselling cheap art it might be better to leave things as they are.

It was ignorance and inexperience that I paid for, but fortunately and soon enough I learned to have paintings restored and frames made at a fraction of that amount.  I learned the hard way, the terribly expensive way. There was nobody to advise the amateur investor, no books to refer to and no experience to guide me.

Sotheby’s New York was the destination of both paintings and by May 1987 had been shipped there.  All the details of sale had been arranged prior to dispatch of the packet, but there are still a few details that vendors must be aware of when shipping paintings to auction houses:

·         There is a danger of damage and loss therefore insurance is a must.

·         The opinion expressed on the basis of photos is always with the proviso “upon inspection of the actual painting.”

·         The estimate might change once the item arrives at the auction house and the experts examine it closely.

The paintings reached Sotheby’s New York in one piece, but at the back of my mind was the worry of Sotheby’s final expertise. One never knows what they might decide or uncover in their efforts to be accurate and fair to both buyers and sellers. Time passed and I was expecting the good news from New York, the city that had assisted me to survive in the seventies as a young student and in 1986 as a fledgling investor with the Hofmann.

New York was to be the venue of my important sales that autumn with paintings such as the Montezin, Harpignies, Girardet and Choultse. The expectation was a return close to twenty thousand pounds in total. The wait was long and anxiety prolonged as summer was approaching. Sotheby’s have always been prompt in responding to consignment issues. Was there a problem?

The letter from the expert of Sotheby’s was short and to the point. The Girardet is fine and although heavily restored we are still happy with it. By the way that painting sold for £3,800 in November of that year, returning me just over 50% profit, thus verifying my view that New York was a better market than London.

However, “The Harpignies is not up to standard and we have asked the expert’s view on the piece. The advice is that it is not by the artist. We are sorry to give you such bad news.” 

Devastating news and the nemesis of a wrong investment visited unexpectedly. I had stepped on the banana skin I was so afraid of.  The Harpignies was a fake in spite of its purchase at Christie’s!  The news was a major blow and shook me to the core. I expected anything I bought at the most prestigious auction house in the world to be genuine, correct and as described.  I was at ease buying with Christie’s as their paintings pass an inspection of two or three experienced experts, but regrettably it was not so in this case, and I was seriously out of pocket.

So readers, caution! Even top auctions can sell wrong paintings!

However in spite of that major setback, I was determined, I was on a one path, one direction mission, and had to carry on.  I had made plenty of money in 1986 and I was able to take the knock from the Harpignies painting. Besides, I was hoping other investments would make up the losses incurred.

 

Guarantees of authenticity at auctions

Christie’s and Sotheby’s have earned the trust and confidence of their customers by offering guarantees of authenticity of five years on art they sell. Guarantees at other auctions can vary from two years at larger auctions, to months, weeks or no guarantees at all at smaller auctions.  It is therefore imperative to read the conditions of sale for every auction you intend to buy or sell at.

The five-year guarantee at the major auctions reads as follows:

“ If a purchase is proven not to be genuine and not by the artist stated, then, provided the painting is returned in the same condition as bought, we will refund the purchase sum but not any expenses incurred because of the painting.”

That I already knew well. The Harpignies had cost an additional £1500 in expenses to restore, frame and ship to New York and back to London. That was a hefty loss and a very serious lesson to learn. Knowledge and experience gained cost high sums of money, but unfortunately there was no other way to carry on trading.

The experience gained from the Harpignies trade was invaluable and well worth remembering:

·         The value of a painting dictates a proportionate restoration expense that should not exceed 20% of the final selling price.

·         Buy from auctions with guarantees of authenticity.

·         Major auctions as well as smaller ones make mistakes of attribution, thus great care should be taken when buying to ensure authenticity.

Auction houses honour their guarantees and legal responsibilities.  The Harpignies was returned to Christie’s. The verdict of the expert could not be questioned and the investment of £2200 was returned promptly.  The expert in charge, who was a good friend by then, apologized for the unfortunate event and promised to help financially with illustrations of paintings in future sales, so that I could recover some of the expenses incurred on the painting.  I appreciated this and time and again illustration charges were waived.  As a result of this good will and my friendship with the expert in charge, Christie’s were to make some serious money in the future from my business with them.

The expert was actually to help more than that later and when the difference between his opinion and that of others was in the tens of thousands of pounds. For that I am still eternally grateful to him.  He was indeed a good businessman, and in helping me he helped Christie’s business too. Well done to him! Major auctions are sympathetic and understanding to their clients’ needs and problems. They try to help as much as they can and within the interests of the business they work for. However exceptions also exist, which will become apparent in later entries.

The most important lesson with the Harpignies purchase was loud and clear and it needs to be repeated and expanded: 

·         Experts are human and thus can make mistakes. They have an opinion, which at times, even though rare, might be wrong.  Nobody is infallible.

It is also important to note that: 

·         There are experts on individual artists and they should be consulted before works of art are catalogued. Unprofessional cataloguing? No! Careless and quick cataloguing!

·        Dealers make mistakes too or at times they gamble on a painting as being authentic or by a certain artist. I did not gamble in the Harpignies case. I made an investment relying heavily on Christie’s attribution, which happened to be wrong.

I concluded that I had to make sure myself that what I invested in was well researched and checked many times before it was purchased.  If in doubt, I never paid my hard earned money. Even after I had bought something, I still carried on the checking to make sure everything was in order.  Fakes are mushrooming all over the art world and one has to be one million percent sure that what is purchased is the genuine article.  Keep your eyes open and tread cautiously as in rare cases such mistakes might be deliberate.  Fake is not just banana skins you skid and fall on. The Harpignies case was a small skid by the summer of 1987, but by 1990 things would become much more serious. The Knoedler Gallery case in New York in 2012-13 is a case of millions exchanging hands for possible fakes.

 

Have I always followed my own advice and learnt from my own mistakes? Are you joking! I am human, I am stubborn and most of all I repeat mistakes, which as the ancient Greeks used to say:

 

“ To commit the same mistake twice is not a sign of a wise man”

 

FREEDOM IN ART, COSTAS COULENTIANOS

ODE TO FREEDOM, NUMBER 1/3

 

NUMBER ONE OF OUR EXHIBITION 5TH MARCH-6TH

APRIL 2018, "CYPRUS - FREEDOM AND DEMOCRACY"

 

 

ARTISTS ARE FREE SPIRITS WHO SEE THINGS, CONCEIVE THINGS AND IDEAS IN A DIFFERENT WAY, IN A SPECIAL WAY IF YOU LIKE, BUT, AT THE SAME TIME THEY MANAGE TO TRANSPORT THEIR IDEAS AND THOUGHTS THROUGH THEIR WORK TO US, THE VIEWERS, THE SPECTATORS THE THEATRE AUDIENCE.

COSTAS COULENTINAOS IS CONSIDERED ONE OF THE GIANTS OF MODERN/CONTEMPORARY SCULPTURE NOT ONLY IN GREECE BUT IN EUROPE TOO. COULENTIANOS HAS BEEN HONOURED WITH A PLETHORA OF EXHIBITIONS WORLD WIDE AND HIS SCULPTURES SMALL AND HUGE DECORATE IMPORTANT CITIES ON THE PLANET.

THE LATEST TRIBUTE TO HIS ART WAS IN ATHENS AT THE BENAKI MUSEUM WHERE GREEK CULTURE AND ARTS HONOURED THE ARTIST WITH A SOLO EXHIBITION OF HIS WORK TITLED, "THE LAST ACROBAT OF MODERNISM".

THE EXHIBITION SHOWED EXAMPLES 2/3 AND 3/3 OF THE PRESENT WORK AND ILLUSTRATED BOTH PIECES ON PAGE 197 AND ON THE BACK PAGE OF THE CATALOGUE.

ABSTRACT ART IS FREE SPIRIT AND AN ART THAT CAN BE INTERPRETED VARIOUSLY AND DEPENDING ON THE VIEWER. THE WORK OF COULENTIANOS IS A MIXTURE OF IDEAS WHICH WE SEE PRIMARILY AS A SHOUT TO FREEDOM, A SERIOUS CONCERTED EFFORT TO CAPTURE THE OUTER SPACE AND LIBERATE THE MIND TO THE SYMBAN, TO THE UNIVERSE, THAT SURROUNDS US AND PERHAPS DEFINE US IN A WAY WE ARE NOT CAPABLE TO COMPREHEND. 

 

PETER CONSTANT 

THE GOODS ARE IN THE FAR EAST!!

THE RESULTS OF A SOUND INVESTMENT AND A PREMATURE CASHING IN!!

WHEN MAKING AN INVESTMENT THE EYE IS ON THE CASHING IN. UNFORTUNATELY FOR ME, CASHING IN WAS ALWAYS A PROBLEM AND A REAL ISSUE. CASHING IN TOO EARLY!!

 

Hong Kong the old, new world

May 2011

I regret the decision to sell.  I hate the prospect of living without the children that have kept me company for nearly four years.  It is impossible to disassociate sentiments from money matters in art investments.  However, I have become a pragmatist and I see things more rationally at the age of sixty-five.  Pragmatism prevails! Money wins!

The research into the latest sales of Mai Thu’s work favour Sotheby’s as the venue to sell, and thus the negotiations with Sotheby’s Hong Kong start.  The expert in charge loves the paintings the moment he sees images of them. “Beautiful, what the market is after,” he comments.  “We can sell them for you Mr Constant at 55,000 HK dollars each,” (about £4000 each). I am very happy with that, and with no bargaining, no demands except the usual charges as a trader, I prepare to ship the beautiful pair of Vietnamese children back to the region they belong to.

Dreaming of a good sale once again, reliving the dreams of earlier days and earlier times, I start the process of shipping the small pictures to Hong Kong. I am optimistic about the sale result, but also apprehensive at the possibility of the paintings remaining unsold in a far away country.

The packing is finished but the sadness and feelings of emptiness in parting with something living in the house is no exaggeration. I do not fill the space where the two images of the Vietnamese children have been.  Perhaps, I am expecting them back at some point soon. Who knows what will happen in Hong Kong?  FEDEX collects the tiny box containing the two paintings hours after I call them in May 2011. It has been a year or so since I shipped anything abroad and my worry is as usual deep but unnecessary. Will the packet get lost being so small?  Will the paintings arrive safely and as packed? When will the two children arrive and will the expert like them as much when he sees them close up? 

Two days later the packet is still in transit in Paris.  Why is FEDEX so late?  What an ordeal!  It takes six long days to receive confirmation that the paintings have arrived safely in Hong Kong. The email with a photo proves to me that they are finally in the safe hands of Sotheby’s.  They look fine and I feel comfortable once again, but for how long?  This is a business of unpredictable and unexpected events. What new event is going to happen to this old fox? Everything possible has already happened, hasn’t it?

One week later still no contracts from Sotheby’s.  Emails are exchanged with the promise they will send the documentation soon. Two weeks and then three weeks pass and alarm bells are ringing. This is not Sotheby’s normal practice.  I find out that Hong Kong is so busy they barely cope with the limited personnel they have.  Sotheby’s eventually dispatch the contract documents with a reputable courier, who I must admit offer a service I dislike a lot. They fail to deliver as nobody is home, and that’s it!  They never try again; they never deliver the documents! At the end of the fourth week, Sotheby’s email the contracts and everything is back on track.

What a headache already and the omens do not encourage me!  I am sitting on edge. This is not just far away - this feels like events are happening on another planet. The situation is out of my hands, it is out of my control and that inexplicably worries me. It’s Sotheby’s, silly. Calm down!  Stop worrying and start hoping for an unforgettable sale! 

August 2011

It is late August 2011 and there is no announcement of the impending sale in Hong Kong. I am writing the last parts of my diary. It is the last quarter of 2011 and the Mai Thu masterpieces are on my mind all the time. I am frustratingly worried for just one reason now. Will they sell and for how much?  Am I going to be poorer or richer? Silly worries at my age really. I am comfortably well off. The marriage of teaching and trading art has been well cemented and has paid off handsomely. I have built a great art portofolio of some potential and my pension from teaching should be the rock of my retirement.

By mid-September my worry has shifted to the catalogue and its late arrival. When will it come? What will the images be like? Will the catalogue do justice to the paintings?  It finally arrives the third week of September - a lavish catalogue with plenty to admire. I flick through the pages anxiously searching for the entries of the two children.  Then on page ninety-eight, on a full page and next to each other, appear the beautiful children of the Vietnamese master, Mai Thu Trung. The illustration is extremely good and the children look amazing. Perfect images! Breathtaking, real life on paper!

 

Timing, ah timing and the world’s financial troubles!

The financial situation worldwide takes the route south with stocks retreating, real estate prices falling and the manufacturing world on the brink. Who wants to know about art?  I am looking at the pair of paintings and am thinking. Will they return the 50% profit I dreamed of four years earlier? What if they return me 20%?  There is a glimmer of hope. The South - East Asia region is still manufacturing, is still the area on the planet to do business with, and since stocks and shares have been falling dramatically there are only a handful of alternatives to invest in, art being one of them. Naturally, I have to be optimistic, but realistically the picture two weeks before the sale looks grim and gloomy. Am I going to be disappointed or will my investment in South - East Asian art be profitable?

At this moment, it’s all up in the air.  I look at the two children time and again. I love the paintings and I am sure the Vietnamese collectors will love them more. I estimate them to sell for at least 70,000 Hong Kong dollars each now (£6000).

Sunday 2nd October 2011

The world is a very uncertain place at the moment. Anxiety at a world recession causes panic selling on the stock exchanges, including Hong Kong. Naturally, I panic too and I am afraid the two paintings will struggle to sell the following day, Monday. On the other hand, I am hoping investors will divert some of their funds into art, but really when you lose money on the stock exchanges you rein in your investment hunger. My worry and anxiety is immense. 

I open the catalogue for the hundredth time. I look at the two lovely faces of Mai Thu’s children, the hope of our world.  Hope! I witness this in classes daily and I enjoy children’s happiness when I see them drawing, playing, studying and doing things they love. Why did I buy these paintings? Is it to make money or is it because of something else deeper in my subconscious? I fail to work it out.

3rd October 2011 3:00 am, London time

I have a sleepless night worrying about the sale in Hong Kong. Anticipation, apprehension, anxiety, immense worry keep me awake and half asleep. The paintings are surely desirable and are going to sell. How much? Guessing is over now as this morning I will find out the result for sure. Has the connoisseur over-estimated the value of his property? Not unusual!  Will they sell or will they become a headache to be brought back to London?

 

 

INVESTING ART CAN BE FUN AND WEALTH MAKER TOO!!

INVEST IN WHAT YOU LIKE AND ENJOY LOOKING AT

 

The art of investment is a science of the highest level.  Avoiding the bubbles, targeting the bargains and investing on the dip are the best tactics of a sound and solid investor; patience and restraint should be exercised in the quest for that right moment and opportunity. As the years went by experience taught me to rein myself in, save the money and wait for that opportune moment.

MAI TRUNG 

 

 

Chapter XXXVII   Emerging Markets Call for Investments!

Investing in art has taken a myriad of routes, innumerable styles of paintings and hundreds of artists.  By the time the Olympics in Athens had finished, my portfolio was about 80% Greek.  That was an unbalanced portofolio, mainly driven by sentiment.  This was short - sighted and very risky. The Greek market had had a great run for over twenty years, which I had exploited well. It had accelerated in the new millennium and as Sotheby’s reported in 2008 had improved by over 500%. But how much further could it climb?   I had no idea, but I was aware of similar rapid increases and then major busts, such as the Swedish and Spanish markets in the late 1980s and 1990s and more recently the Irish art market. 

Quick action was required to put some order into my passion of collecting Greek art and balance my portfolio.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  (Aesop)

A successful investor adjusts to a changing economic environment and that I needed to do once again. The venture had begun with investments in Victorian art and 19th Century European art quickly followed by Impressionist, Contemporary, Russian and Greek art.  Where would I turn to next?  It was always a struggle to be one step ahead or even half a step ahead of the rest of investors/collectors, and then with the Internet and mobile phones revolutionizing information and provision of data it had become even more difficult.  Regardless I had to take remedial action; I had to balance the portfolio.  I would do this by selling Greek art and investing in emerging markets, in underrated and unknown artists and hopefully bargains that went unnoticed.  I had to carry on and look for new investments with potential.

 

Where can I invest £11,000 aiming at a return of 50-100%?

The new millennium pointed to new superpowers and shifting of the world’s wealth from continent to continent and more significantly from country to country. The South - East Asian economies had been showing fast GDP growth for years especially at the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. These were the economies that promised an 8% annual GDP for years to come, and if that happened their art would also grow by as much if not by more, I concluded.

Experience of twenty-five years supported the view that economic prosperity and cultural values come together in the long run.

Thus, I turned my attention to South - East Asia.  The problem I had was which artists of which country or countries and at what level?  I knew that the art market of China, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and India had been on an upward trend for a few years already so it was back to research and study of price movements; down to work and an eye on the market for those bargains that are always around us but often go undetected. 

Art is a specialist field where fortunes can be made by informed investors. I have no doubt that anyone can become such an investor, provided strong desire and hard work are in play.

 

Autumn 2007

Depositing the money in a bank would have given me on average 2% annual return or about two hundred pounds annually. That was not clever as inflation was conservatively estimated at 3% annually. No joy in the bank and no joy in stocks that can move up and down like a yo-yo. Thus, the art investor turned to art, naturally! 

It was back to the auctions of London, Paris and New York. I scrutinized the work of South - East Asian artists estimated to sell up to £6000, provided they had already sold at auction for over £15,000.  It was a matter of which was the best opportunity and who promised the most in the next five to ten years.  Month after month I searched hundreds of sales and events. It was a major challenge, but also very exciting to get to learn new names and analyse new investment opportunities. Catalogues, the Internet, galleries were visited day after day. There was a rush to invest, even though I kept telling myself to hold off, wait for the right opportunity, the bargain.

 

 

SO WHAT HAPPENED WITH THIS INVESTMENT??

FOLLOW MY BLOG !!!