REWARDS FOR BEING AT THE AUCTION

ATTENDING AUCTIONS IS NECESSARY AND MANY A TIME FINANCIALLY REWARDING

IF YOU HAVE THE TIME ATTEND AUCTIONS EVEN WHEN YOU PLAN NOT TO BUY ANYTHING. MIRACLES DO HAPPEN AND UNLESS YOU ARE PRESENT IN THE AUCTION ROOM, YOU CANN NEVER BENEFIT FROM ANY BARGAINS OR OTHER EVENTS.

 

Chapter XVIII             Rewards in Country Auctions

December 1989   Gorringes, Lewes Sussex

 

ANOTHER PAINTING BY WILLIAMS

Country auctions do a great job in selling all sorts of art and antiques in mixed sales. They are invaluable for quick sales and sales of small value items, which major auctions refuse to deal with. Since they are general sellers of all kinds of antiques and art, one hopes they miss something and the knowledgeable investor becomes the beneficiary of such a mistake. However, that is not to say that the major auction houses do not miss items in their sales from time to time as it becomes clear in these memoirs.

In December 1989 the markets were booming worldwide. Gorringes auctioneers in Lewes, Sussex, had their usual December auction over four days. My interest was in the paintings section to be held on Friday, the fourth day of sale. Having a great drive and still plenty of enthusiasm, I viewed the sale on the Saturday before the week of the auction. There was plenty to attract my attention, but two paintings stood out for me: a still life of flowers by Albert Williams with a very low estimate, allowing room for a decent profit, and a marine painting indistinctly signed and catalogued as by an unknown artist with an estimate of £300-500.

The signed marine oil painting interested me the most. Unlike the auctioneers, I had no difficulty in recognising the signature as Jacques Somerscales, a very respected marine artist selling regularly close to £5,000 for minor works.  I knew the artist’s work very well and had actually attributed the work to the artist before examining the signature closely. If it sold at that low estimate, it would be a bargain.

Excited and dreaming about a bargain purchase, I could not wait for the sale to happen.  I knew that a well below market value purchase would guarantee me a handsome profit equal to a few months’ earnings as a supply teacher. 

On that Friday morning I made an early start through the dense London traffic arriving at Lewes early enough to allow me plenty of time to have breakfast at a local café and go for a stroll round the small shops of the town. Walking from shop to shop in the town of Lewes has always been a pleasant experience even in winter. However, on that day my mind and my thoughts were on one thing only - the Sommerscales marine painting, a possible sleeper, ie a bargain.

I was prepared to pay up to £1,800, even though I could afford a much more expensive painting with the Ralli money expected in the bank soon.  The estimate allowed me reasonable hopes of doubling my investment within six months, and plenty more if I bought cheaply. It was pure and simple mathematics. It was business.  A good profit of up to 100% perhaps 200% within six months was on the cards.  Where else could I make that sort of money so quickly?

Following a mixed sale in a country auction or anywhere as a matter of fact bored me enormously.  I scribbled down prices indifferently, I prayed for some missing excitement but nothing was happening.  The Williams painting eventually came up for sale, and I expected it to sell close to £1000 or a little more. The auction market suggested a conservative thousand pounds or thereabouts.

Albert Williams

(English, [1922- 2010] Popular painter of still life paintings of flowers.  Auction price range £500-3000)

 “Two hundred,” called the auctioneer. A couple of hands went up, but at £350 the bidding stopped.  At that price the painting was a bargain.  With no hesitation up went my hand.

“Three-fifty I have, three-fifty, three-eighty I have,” announced the auctioneer. “Four hundred, four hundred and thirty and…four-fifty to you sir,” he said pointing straight at me.  “I have four hundred and fifty. I am selling at £450, sold at £450.”

The Williams Still Life of Roses was mine. I was happy with the unexpected purchase and advised myself: 

·         Attend auctions even when you do not plan to buy anything.

·         Follow auctions because you never know what might happen during an auction and what might sell for a bargain price.

I was pleasantly surprised to buy the Williams at five hundred pounds total, as I had expected the painting to sell well above £1000.  Was I overestimating its value?  Nevertheless, even though slightly uncertain about the retail value of the piece, I was very happy with my unexpected investment. No doubt I could make a few pounds soon enough, I reassured myself.  Flowers, roses and by an artist selling regularly close to a thousand pounds, it was bread and butter and I was not averse to that.  I was happy with my decision to attend the auction and be there early. Yes, being there, reacting quickly to the situation and bidding decisively was essential.

 

Buy and sell within a minute! 

Happy with the Williams investment, I waited patiently for the Somerscales painting to come on the rostrum. The auction was picking up steam, the bidding was thicker and more intense and suddenly pessimism overcame me. I felt there was no chance of buying the Sommerscales cheaply, as others must have seen it. Surely, others have spotted it, I kept thinking.

Gorringes mix expensive art with low value art and that formula has proven successful over the decades. Bored and anxious to finish the auction I waited for the turn of the Sommerscales sale. I could see no familiar dealers in the room. My mind was racing ahead to the purchase of the marine painting when my train of thought was interrupted unexpectedly.

“Mr Constant, sorry to interrupt you.  I’d like a word with you about the Williams you have just bought?”

Standing by one of the back walls, it was easy for one of the auctioneers’ assistants to approach me and ask this discreetly.  I looked at him lost in my thoughts and failing to understand this sudden intrusion.

“Mr Constant, there is somebody who is seriously interested in buying off you the Albert Williams painting you have just bought.”

This came out of the blue and caught me by surprise. I had heard of such things happening during auctions but never before in my case. I guess there is always a first time in everything!

“Would you consider selling it?”

“Everything is for sale,” I replied stoically, “as long as the price is right.”

“What is your price, so that I can inform the interested buyer?”

“It will cost £1200.”

Works of that quality by the artist cost close to £3000 in galleries. My rationale was that, if this person wanted the painting so much, he would have to pay me at least £1000. Horse-trading happened there and then and the final agreement was £1000, payable on Monday at my house. Apparently, the interested buyer got caught up in traffic and missed the sale.

·         Please give yourself plenty of time when planning to attend an auction to purchase something.  Arrive early and wait rather than miss something you really want to buy.

·         One hundred per cent profit within minutes of an investment cannot be rejected.

The whole story of selling the Williams took two minutes at most. That’s the way my boy, I congratulated myself.  That was two weeks’ salary!  Rest, you made the money for the week - just over 100% on that investment and within less than half an hour. 

The Lewes auction rooms had always been lucky for me whenever I traded there: Greek art in 1986, Dyf in 1988 and now Williams in 1989.   Could I get my hands on another treasure in a few minutes’ time?

I composed myself after the absolute euphoria of the Williams’ purchase and sale and waited patiently, reasonably optimistic of the next, more important purchase, the Somerscales.

 

 

THE DREMA COMES TRUE!! HATRICK AND MORE!!

LUCK WAS WITH ME BUT HARD WORK PAID OFF TOO!!

No holiday but what a reward for that? The House sale proved to be the treasure house anyone looks for but to no avail. it was a great reward for tall the hard work and bad luck of earlier sales.

 

 

Thomas Thomopoulos

(Greek,  [1873- 1937] Well-reputed sculptor of the first half of the twentieth century and professor of Art at Athens School of Art. His work is very rare and therefore valuable. Auction price range £10,000 plus)

The sculptures were estimated at £300-400 each and I knew that only a miracle would allow me to buy just one; the quality was just too high, too obviously good. The first one came up for sale and just managed to reach the reserve of £300.  Who was the lucky buyer?  Me!  Am I going to buy another one?  Patience, neophyte! Patience! One after the other all four sculptures, unbelievably, were knocked down to me at an average price of about £400 each including the auction’s commissions.

The miracle I had dreamed about, the hat trick I had hoped for became reality near the scene of my first baptism into the auction business in 1983.  I felt lost, hopelessly dizzy and euphoric at the same time. Does that make sense?

Surely the sculptures were worth more than four hundred pounds each! How much more I did not know and did not want to know. They were worth every penny face value.  Nothing more entered my thoughts. It was impossible to think more about such a purchase of seven fabulous items in just one sale.  My mind refused to function normally. I lost control of reality for a while, in no man’s land mentally. I was lost in bliss! Was it reality or a dream? Pinch yourself man! Wake up!  Breathe! Breathe the fresh, sweet air of Sussex and the more oxygenating air of auction with its promises and miraculous hopes.

I had to wait for some time to come to my senses and absorb what had happened. It was a wait to the end of the sale to collect my purchases, but I could wait days and nights in order to collect such art.  I was overcome with such emotions of gratitude to my lucky stars and powers of the universe that I was screaming with joy and hoping of profits, immense profits.  It was mid-afternoon by the time I carried those gems to my car.  By then the auctioneers were also leaving the premises, having finished their business. They looked happy with the day’s sale.

“Good afternoon,” greeted one of them.  That was the same gentleman who, three years earlier, had remarked to me and my friend, “I hope you knew what you bought chaps.”  I still remembered his comment so it was pay back day today.  “Very nice items you bought, Peter,” he added.

“Yes, they are good, aren’t they?”

“I can’t believe they did not sell more than they did,” he stated matter of factly.

I looked up while I was sorting out the car. I had the question ready for a couple of years now. This was my chance to level the score with this all rounder and good friend since that day in 1983.

“Do you remember what you told me three years ago in October 1983?”

“No?  What did I tell you?  Come on, tell me.”

I did not want to boast.  I did not want to look cocky and vindictive. However this was my chance to get all that negative feeling off my chest.

“Three years ago you told me and my friend, “I hope you knew what you bought, chaps!” 

“Did I really say that?” 

“Yes, you did, in good heart of course, but you obviously don’t remember the occasion.”

“No, no, I don’t remember.” 

“Today, I am telling you, “You wish you knew what you sold to me!” 

“Yes, I know,” he said trying to justify himself, “these are very good quality items and I am very surprised they did not sell for more.”

I was not an ignoramus any more, even though I could not claim I was an expert either. However, compared to the country auctioneers, my knowledge was far superior even though I knew I was still well behind the really good traders in town. Could I catch up with them and surpass them? Could I make it up the ladder of art investment? That was the challenge!

The trip to Sussex was over.  The target was hit dead centre, but how fruitful would this hit be?  Any art is worth as much as it sells, we say in the art trade. Was I a better trader in 1986 or was I a very, very lucky person.

 

No hat trick, at Sothebys, but 500% profit could not be sneered at

October 1986, Sotheby’s London Sale

Angelos Giallinas

(Greek, [1857-1939], a superb watercolourist, who painted Corfu, Athens, Venice and Spain. His work can be seen in the most important Greek collections and museums. Auction price range £1000-20,000)

The account was empty after the seven purchases. The stock was plenty and rather valuable in my view, but the fact staring me in the eyes was stark and serious; you are penniless and you owe a large sum of money. How could I manage that situation under the circumstances of 1986?  No major income from anywhere, no sales in the summer and a young family to support.  I could have managed my finances a little better, couldn’t I?

All three Giallinas’ works were consigned with Sotheby’s for their Topograpical sale of October 1986. I was desperate for cash in order to survive, let alone invest in anything else. Rich in assets but penniless!

That sale was very patchy and long. I stood in the corner of the St George’s saleroom and counted the people present. Just twelve present but a few Greek faces.  I was not so confident any more.  I crossed my fingers and reminded myself that Giallinas is a top name for Greek collectors.  It only needs one or two to make a good sale, I reassured myself.  My fears were unfounded as the successful bidder, a cool, composed and no nonsense investor bought both sold items to make my day one of the most memorable.  The Corfu View sold at £4000 and the Venetian Scene at £3800. The Scene of Farmer with Oxen remained unsold but was bought immediately for £2000 by a friend of mine. So much money in October 1986 was mind blowing. What about the statues and the rest of the sales? Would I be a millionaire overnight? Dreamer!!

With the total investment on all seven purchases back in the account plus profit from those sales, I breathed comfortably and patiently waited to sell the Thomopoulos statues.  No need to hurry, no pressing money matters. A couple of doors I knocked at were very interested. Name your price was the quote. By the end of October 1986 and at a considerable profit, (500% profit), I sold the four marble sculptures to a very good collector.  With my finances in great order, my attention was already turned to New York and the sale of Montezin and Hofmann.

 

I was an innocent amateur in 1983. It was obvious for the knowledgeable to see and I was aware of it myself.  I was feverishly working to close the gaps and build new blocks of knowledge, but the art business is complex learned gradually through experiences and the process of trial and error over time. With plenty of energy and with good luck, by 1986 I was more than capable of turning a penny into a few pounds. Three years was long enough to acquire basic knowledge. I was on my way, but was it really all roses in my path?

 

BARGAINS IN MID-SUMMER

THERE WAS NO WAY TO KNOW WHAT WAS INSIDE!!

 

I KNEW NOTHING ABOUT THOMOPOULOS BUT HIS WORK SPOKE VOLUMES OF A TOP ARTIST. THE GIALLINA WATERCOLOURS WERE ALSO OF TOP QUALITY. THE OWNER OF THE ESTATE WAS FOR SURE A SIGNIFICANT COLLECTOR WITH GREEK ROOTS!!

 

Chapter VI   Greek Art - “You Wish You Knew What You Sold Me!”

 

The sale of the contents of an estate – Thomas Thomopoulos

 

July 1986, East Sussex England

The investment in Hofmann was a significant event but I was not going to fold my arms and just wait for that sale to come through. I was a very active neophyte with a volcano’s energy to burn and still money to invest.

I referred to the Antiques Gazette earlier and mentioned how invaluable a tool it was in the 1980s and 1990s till the Internet revolutionized the way any business is done including buying and selling art.  I was always impatient for the Gazette to come in order to read the new sales reports and ads for future auction sales. It was an anxious wait and very frustrating if it ever arrived late. It became a fellow journeyman in my quest for bargains and profitable investments.

Nothing looked exciting in the early July 1986 issue, except a poor advertisement showing a blurred image of what looked like a classical Greek statue.  It was a slow time and midsummer 1986 was anything but busy. I needed no more excuses to drive out of London and see another auction. This one was different and the first of its kind I had ever attended.  It was the sale of the contents of a small estate in Sussex. Viewing on one day and sale on the next day was normal and that was the way in those days. It gave me plenty of time for viewing on the first day and then research and preparation for bidding the following day.

Would it be first time lucky once again?

The winding road leading to the estate was not easy to find, but the countryside it drove through was as picturesque as I had ever seen in that part of Sussex.  The estate was hidden away off the main road, but the signs finally directed me there. I already knew that the auctioneers of the sale were the same ones where I had made my first auction purchases three years earlier with my friend. The amiable auctioneer had remarked jokingly and somewhat concerned then, “I hope you knew what you bought chaps,” simply because we had literally bought junk of no significant value or interest.

Never one to forget the well-meant comment, I plugged on and worked hard. I was laughed at and probably with good reason.  He was joking of course, but nevertheless I knew he was right. I was an amateur and so was my friend. Being ignorant, I bought everything and anything one might imagine with no plan, no knowledge and no vision.  Needless to say, everything was cheap and unimportant. However, his honest remark and concern stuck in my mind.  I wanted to pay him back with the same token and currency one day, but how?

Between 1983 and 1986 I had accumulated knowledge and experience in fine art by trading worldwide and reading avidly everything related to auctions, artists’ prices, trends and fashionable artists. Still, I was not good enough compared with the big investors in the trade as shown by the lesson Mr Green had taught me at Sotheby’s a couple of months earlier.  However, specializing in art and especially art from 1850 onwards, I felt gave me an edge, even as early as 1986, when compared with the country auctioneers.  They knew a little about everything but nearly nothing in depth and especially about fine art, which requires in depth knowledge of artists’ work and their current auction value.  Certainly I knew a lot more about modern and contemporary art as well as Greek art, even though few if any were the pieces I had invested in that area at that time. That was to change for good and forever as far as Greek art was concerned soon after that sale in Sussex.

The sales of the contents of whole estates and country houses offer opportunities to buy fresh on the market items. If not well advertised and attended, they might offer bargain opportunities.

The estate, whose contents were for sale, apparently belonged to a Greek man from Asia Minor, as I later found out from the auctioneers. He was a ship-owner early in the century, but he had no immediate family and his nephews and nieces were selling his estate. That was the perfect scenario for me - it offered possibilities for a bargain. Who would know anything about Greek art in this remote corner of Sussex, if indeed this ex-patriot had collected or bought anything Greek? Were my Greek origins, upbringing and education going to help me in art?

There was nothing impressive about the outside of the house to start with. It was slightly small but had stables to the front, gallops at the back and extensive land. There were a couple of signs that the owners might have been Greek but nothing conclusive. The catalogue mentioned nothing about the deceased owner and his ancestry.

The main entrance led almost immediately to a large room, the main sitting/drawing room containing furniture, large tables, sculptures and paintings on the walls. The paintings were what drew me primarily. Two or three looked interesting and from the distance I guessed who the artist might be.  Before I made my way to the walls to examine them more closely, I simultaneously spotted an impressive piece of sculpture in one corner, then another, then a third and a fourth all standing on grandiose pedestals in different corners. They were all identical in colour. The nearest one was inscribed in big Greek letters, ‘Thomas Thomopoulos’.

Who was Thomas Thomopoulos?  I had no idea. I walked to the next one, then the next one and the next one. All four were inscribed in Greek ‘Thomas Thomopoulos’. I stopped to breathe and take in the quality and subject matter of these magnificent sculptures. They were absolutely wonderful, coloured marble sculptures by a very skilful artist, whoever he was.

Recovering from the shock of these magnificent sculptures, I turned to the walls to see the paintings and in particular the ones I thought I recognised.  It took me a split second to know who the artist was. Yes, I knew the artist well, I was sure of it. The catalogue said, “signed in Chinese”, and I am not exaggerating, it is the honest truth, but to me, it was Greek, clear, calligraphic Greek, ‘Giallinas’. The Giallinas’ watercolours were the best I had seen up to that moment and perhaps even to this day. They were of superb quality, wonderful subjects and in great condition. I was spellbound.  They depicted a magnificent view of Pontikonissi and Vlaherna in Corfu, a wonderful Venetian View, and a Farmer With Oxen Tilling His Land.

I needed fresh air, I needed to think and I needed to gather my wits about me. The seven pieces were within my reach, if they remained at their estimates, but that was impossible, I reasoned. If any other Greeks were at the sale or saw the advertisement, the prices would climb high, very high.  However, if Greeks had not spotted the sale there might be a chance, as Giallinas signed in Greek was rare and not immediately recognizable to English dealers familiar with the artist.  I needed Luck, Great Luck! I would have considered myself extremely lucky to buy two of those pieces, let alone seven! 

I knew nothing about the sculptor Thomopoulos, but by the summer of 1986 I could recognize quality in art. The four marble statues were magnificent, of an exquisite colour and subject matter close to the heart of any Greek – Greece and her struggles for freedom.

My thoughts all the way back to London were about money and how I might buy just one watercolour and one sculpture.  I had to be realistic with my chances, even though I knew that miraculous things could happen in auction rooms. 

Back home and the encyclopedia of Greek Art revealed a great picture of Thomopoulos the sculptor, a professor of art at Athens School of Art and a great artist in his own right.  There were no auction sales but I needed none.  Over the last three years my eye and ability to judge art and see value in art had developed enormously. However, even without that, the superb quality was obvious even to an amateur.  The sculptures were incredible pieces of art and a tribute to Greek history!  I had an evening of research and planning that was followed by a restless night of sweet dreams and nightmares at the estate with the treasures.

It had been impossible to sleep really, impossible to rest; the prospect of bidding, the hope of buying bargains played so much on my mind.  Sleepless I was, but I arrived early at the house in East Sussex the following day full of energy and with an unbridled feeling of hope! 

I had calculated all my money once and twice to the last penny and it amounted to just about £4000. That was after I had changed banks and obtained an overdraft of twenty thousand pounds with Nat West. How did I manage to end up with £16,000 in the red in such a short time and with so many sales in 1985?  How could I be calculating to spend all the remainder of the money and leave myself broke once again?

The truth was that I had become addicted to investing in art. I was obsessed. I was drawn to the high value items, where the profits were high but the stakes were even higher. I had already bought the Hofmann for about £8000 just a month earlier, in addition to investments in several other paintings at £2000-3000 each. The Montezin had already cost £3700.  It was a mountain of debt that was worrying me, even though I was a very happy art trader! I was addicted to art but what a wonderful addiction to suffer from - an addiction that earned money!

It was early afternoon on a lovely summer’s day in East Sussex, England.  The marquee was packed with local people; no sign of London dealers but most importantly not a single face that I would recognize as Greek. That was a good omen! I did not expect any dealers could read Greek or know anything about Thomopoulos, since I had no idea about him and his work myself.  Fingers crossed, prayers said I waited for the sale of the watercolours.

The estimates were £300-500 each. Under normal circumstances one such watercolour was worth about £3000 and perhaps more, due to quality and size. I was hoping to buy just one.  If I managed to do that, it would be a dream fulfilled.  Hope man!  Believe in luck! Why didn’t I have more money? This was when I needed it! That is the question all the time. There is never enough cash! You always need more cash!

 By 2:00 pm the watercolours and the statues came up for sale. How it all happened, I am not sure. It all became a dream-like event.  After the sale, I confused reality with dreams.

Several dealers, recognizing the quality of the Giallinas but possibly not the Greek calligraphic signature, bid them to £550 each, but in the end they all belonged to me at about £600.  One after the other the three Giallinas were knocked down to me. Unexpected! Miracle of miracles! I wish there had been ten of them! No serious competition. I was thrilled to bits. I felt wonderful!  However, I had to conceal my happiness and bid on the statues as if nothing had happened earlier. This was an important event, a miracle in progress.

Never betray your intentions or your emotions to others in an auction room. Remember Richard Green and his actions at Sotheby’s, when he bought the Seago?  Quiet as a mouse! Great poker player!

 

The quality of the statues was obvious, the importance was there but was there another Greek in the room? If the Giallinas were not recognized, Thomopoulos will not be recognized either, I reasoned to calm myself down and keep the mounting pressure under control. The four of them together meant a hat trick for me. Were they worth anything more than £500 in the Greek market and in a quick sale? I was wondering about that, but I was also pretty sure of the indisputable quality.

 

TRUST IS ESSENTIAL BUT PAPERWORK MORE ESSENTIAL!

 

ASSOCIATIONS PLAY A GREAT ROLE IN BUSINESS

ANY BUSINESS NEEDS ASSOCIATES, PEOPLE YOU TRUST TO WORK WITH AND PEOPLE WHO KNOW WHAT YOUR BUSINESS IS ALL ABOUT. MR T WAS VERY IMPORTANT IN MY WORK FOR SEVERAL YEARS. THE ASSOCIATION WAS FRUTIFUL FOR BOTH... BUT......

 

                                         

 

 

“I can sell the Ralli.” A near catastrophe!

Six years of close co-operation was enough for me to trust Mr T and vice versa. On hearing about the Ralli he assured me that he had a buyer.

“Let me sell it for you. I can sell easily for ten thousand pounds.” 

“Ok, you have one week to sell as I have a potential buyer too,” I made clear to him. 

The week was over.  My expectations for a sale were dashed and so I visited Mr T at his house to collect the painting.

“Leave it with me”, he pleaded. “I will sell it before the Christie’s sale, and if I don’t, I’ll consign it for you for the December auction.”

I collected the painting and tried to sell privately. It was summer and it was no use. I left the painting with my agent who consigned it with Christie’s for the Greek sale of that December.

By October 1995 Mr T passed away unexpectedly. Had I left the Ralli with him that summer I would have been involved in an ownership battle with his inheritors who were already warring between themselves about the huge art collection he had left behind.  I avoided a calamity of immense proportions, which taught me a very serious lesson!

Never loan or give for sale anything without the necessary paperwork. I trusted Mr T but without any documents of sale agreement, I would have been out of pocket for sure and in a legal battle with his inheritors.

The consignment of the Ralli plus the Tsingos at Christie’s Athens went smoothly. The lady in charge liked the Ralli and the estimate was actually £7-10,000. It was a high estimate, but for the Greek collectors it was an encouragement to buy rather than stay away; buyers in Greek art sales used to be mainly private individuals, as opposed to auctions in London, where about 70% of lots sold went to dealers.

The December sale in Athens was a major affair for Athenian art lovers. Major names were included in the sale and the Ralli looked splendid, although slightly small. The sale was extremely important for me financially. If it was good I could carry on with my art business, if bad I was in financial trouble again!

·         Being at the top of my overdraft limit was usual for me.  It is not a practice I would advise anybody to follow.

·         Using credit cards to finance purchases should be avoided. It doesn’t pay!  It leads to serious problems and financial headaches!

Christie’s Greek Sale in December 1995 was crucial. I took the decision to attend the sale on which so much depended.  I also had a couple of small sales to make there and as an added bonus weekends in Athens were always enjoyable and entertaining.

 

Athens to the rescue!  Frenetic Bidding on the Ralli

Nervous, apprehensive and full of expectation I made my way to the auction and sat together with a good Athenian collector who had already bought two small paintings from me that very day. The saleroom was packed to the rafters, usually a sign of a successful sale. I estimated about eight hundred people in the room. Was that New York, or Paris or what?

The noise was interestingly loud, the audience anxious for the event to start and so the shaky auctioneer, the young Greek female expert of Christie’s stepped onto to the rostrum. She looked nervous, but also in control and handled things well.  From the first few lots I could work out that the sale was going to be successful.  However that didn’t stop my anxiety from rising by the time lot 40, the Ralli, came up for sale.  Raising funds, surviving for another day was paramount.  Sitting on the edge of my chair with sweaty hands and usual fast heartbeat on such occasions, I looked around me anxiously.  Silence! Unusual silence!

The bidding started. No time to dwell on the precarious position I was in. I had the ammunition to come out of the crisis but would the Athenians like the goods I had brought to them from Europe?  The hands were up, the bids flew in and before I even realized what had happened the Ralli painting had reached the reserve of seven thousand pounds; hands were still fighting each other at five hundred pound intervals.  Three million five hundred thousand drachmas was passed and soon enough ‘The Odalisque’was at four million drachmas or ten thousand pounds.  The young auctioneer turned left and right at 4,200,000 and then 4,500,000 and finally at 4,800,000 drachmas the gavel came down. Incredible!!!

What a triumph!  Unexpected and expected at the same time! Art was beautiful and more so when the money from such small investments as the Ralli became seriously important. Was that a nine thousand pounds profit? Wasn’t that 300% return in eight months?  Maths at work, quick!  How much was that in sterling pounds? £13,500 and I looked at Lord Poltimore, who was smiling happily supervising the event.  I was saved. An unexpected investment in the shape of an after-sale bid had become the boat of salvation and the beginning of a comeback. I had the money to support the business, to invest further and carry on with my dream.

Once again another painting of Ralli promised to turn the struggles of survival in the early 1990s to profit making on a higher scale.  Some artists are lucky for some and Ralli proved to be a goldmine for me! There is no way I can describe my relief, my happiness and joy on that day.  Nearly every problem disappeared.  The Tsingos, lot 125 in the same sale, made me another £2000 and the Lembesis made the reserve of £6000. Once again I was back fighting and well on top of financial troubles.

This is how the art market can be. Up and down, down and up. A constant headache and heartache about what will happen the following day, in a months’ time, the following year. Challenging and promising like a siren.

Being lucky in any business is essential and I must admit I was lucky on many, many occasions. I cannot say that I was unlucky ever. Would luck continue on my side and would I keep creating the opportunities for luck to play her hand?  An unsold painting and an after-sale bid had proven to be a golden opportunity and the shrewdest of moves in the middle of a recession.  I had grabbed it immediately and was freed from a myriad of financial headaches.

 

 

EMERGING MARKETS PROMISE BUT ALSO DANGEROUS GROUND!!

GREEK MARKET PROMISED A LOT BUT

Back in 1987 things were rosy for Greece. a new member of EU, new money coming in the country and the Greek art market had plenty of ground to cover, when compared to other markets i was involved in. it promised plenty and it deserved involvement as an experiment.

The Greek market had a great run until 2008-09 when the wheels came off of the Greek economy. the same might apply to any emerging market and for that reason i advise caution and restraint, things i never practised and paid for.

 

Collapsing markets come back again but how long can one wait?

 

 

 

A new emerging market promises plenty

I had already tasted significant success with Greek art in 1986 and also witnessed the excellent sale results of Parthenis and Ghika at Sotheby’s.  It was a market moving in the right direction in spite of the world’s financial problems and came at the best time for my fledgling trading activities.  Thus, Greek art became the new section of the art market to invest in and Athens the city of my business interests and art adventures. 

Downtown Athens is a mixture of a modern, crazy city and a cultural hub. Old churches standing next to modern dull buildings; ancient monuments showing off proudly three thousand years of history next to modern monstrosities of cement and glass; maddening, noisy traffic; untold pollution filling your lungs with poisonous gases, chasing everybody out of the eternal city.

Walking towards Plaka and the central market of Athens towards Pylarinos gallery was nevertheless a pleasure. I was an onlooker.  I was a tourist on a sort of business trip. I admired the displays in the shop windows, but my mind was more on the gallery I was to visit soon.

Pedlars were screaming their heads off to sell, crowds were rushing to their business and I was watching, taking everything in and thinking, do I want this?  Can this be the place to make money?  Ten minutes’ walk, was it?  Perhaps less than that, but soon enough I was there. Paintings outside, vases in the windows, furniture further in. It was one of those antique shops that sold everything, new and old, the rubbish and valuable in one heap. That did not bother me.  Was there a bargain among all that junk? That was the question!

I walked in eagerly but with a measured slow step.  Two sales sharks rushed to help me and help themselves to my money.  “I am just looking,” I stated indifferently.

I looked around and took in all the activity. I watched with curiosity the people buying and the boss in the shop, a middle-aged man who spoke little, but around whom everybody ran fearfully. That was a messy shop but somehow it was run with military precision. The phones kept ringing as if keeping time with the clanging bike bells and hooting cars and taxis outside.  What a mess!  This was the bazaar area of Athens!

 

Buying first time at a gallery for trade

Athens December 1987  - February 1988, Sotheby’s London

Dimitris Galanis

(Greek, [1882-1966] A Belle Epoch artist working most of his life in Paris. Painted beautiful women and landscapes. Respected and collected both in Greece and France. Auction price range £3,000-100,000 plus)

The Galanis drawing was literally sitting on the floor of the shop. You could not miss it, once you turned in that direction.  Nothing else was near enough in quality.  It stood out and sang to the viewer, “there is nothing else here! It’s just me!”  It was a lovely picture of a reclining nude, beautifully and masterfully drawn in pastels.  Galanis is considered a master in Greek art and a respected and much in demand master of the Belle Epoch in Paris.  The pastel had all the attributes one would expect from such a work and period.

I circled it.  I looked at it time and again, and then, unexpectedly, the hoarse, husky voice of a man sounded behind me. 

“Good morning, can I help you?  I am Pylarinos. This is a lovely drawing,” he added.

“Yes. I like it,” I responded coolly.  “I am Peter Constant from London. What’s the cost?”

“This is a privately owned painting. They are asking 400,000 drachmas (£1500). I believe it is worth every penny of it.”

I remained silent!  I kept looking and checking the painting’s frame and the exquisite image. It was all genuine, old, non-trade, untouched since its inception some seventy years earlier. To make matters worse for me, money was burning in my pocket. I was anxious to invest.

“It is cheap for a Galanis,” continued the husky voice interrupting my train of thoughts.

Silence on my part! It was a fair price, but in Athens one needs to bargain, one needs to play the game of negotiation and mutual giving in of some ground. The norm is to offer just about 50% of the asking price. I remained looking and admiring for another minute or two. I did not make an offer. I thanked the gallery owner and left. I was confident the painting would be there the following day. I needed to think over the possible purchase and my strategy in going about it. I am very slow in getting things done and thinking quickly is not my trademark. Slow as a donkey but always getting there somehow!

This was the first time I was buying something from a private gallery in order to trade. It was an important sum of money for a good painting. I had to consider all those factors and take them into account before my second visit, when I planned to buy the painting, there and then in cash, in sterling, hard currency!

 

Should you pay the full asking price or bargain in certain countries?

The pastel drawing was exquisite.  A small gem that I felt could sell for about £2000 at auction in London. I could not afford to spend more than £1000. I had to be very strict with my purchases and how much I paid for them. It was a matter of good business, knowing fully well that bargaining in the east is a must.  It was a matter of making as much money as possible. I slept over the issue, gave it a good thought in the morning and by midday I was in central Athens at the shop on Sophocleus Street. I had a little time for a chat, but really I was in a rush to buy and get back to London the following day.

Time is money and for me it was indeed significant money.

On entering the gallery, the owner recognized me and immediately came to me. I was straight with him, no need to beat around the bush.

“I like the painting and came to have a second look.”  I looked and stared hard briefly at the beautiful nude.  It was attractive and sensual and very much a drawing I would have loved in my bedroom. Why not others with more money than myself? 

It was about time to try to buy. It was bargaining time. I had to bring the price down.

“What’s the last price on this?”

“I am not sure, but we can ask. I am sure a 10% discount is in line.”

I looked him straight in the eye and responded firmly.  “I have very little time as I am going back to London tomorrow,” which was true. “I have £1000 in sterling for the painting. I can pay now, collect and go.”  Cash is king, was my idea.

He screwed his eyes, groaned a little and then, “let me make a call, please.”

The call was made, the conversation was over quickly and he was back with me soon.

“Are you paying in pounds?” “ Yes, right now, if we reach an agreement.”

“It’s a deal,” he declared smiling.

Well, well, well! I did not expect it to be so easy.  I was very happy with my new investment. Reward for the trip, I guessed. The painting was wrapped well, while I counted the money.  I was on my way out of the shop when the owner unexpectedly addressed me once again.

“Can I ask for a big favour, if you allow me?”

“Yes, by any means, if I can help.”  Help if you can, rest assured it will always benefit you too!  One good turn brings another!

“I need a cheque of £300 for something I am buying in London. Can you help me?”

“Of course,” I replied. “No problem.” I wrote the cheque and he was ready to give me the equivalent in drachmas.

“No, no need for that.  Next time I visit Athens I might buy something else from you to settle this.”

He was startled. He stared at me speechless for a moment.  He took his glasses off, he looked at me for a few seconds and then he declared shakily in a hoarse whisper:

“Listen,” his voice came out emotionally loaded, “I have been in this business for thirty years. Nobody ever gave me money.  Nobody trusted anything in me without a guarantee. My shop is yours from now on. Anything you buy, take it and go. You can pay me anytime you want and can.”

What a turning point and what an event! It is twenty-five years since then but it is so fresh in my mind. I made a valuable friend, who stood by his word and our business relationship was one of gentlemen helping each other.

I wasted no time with the Galanis pastel. Sell and reinvest was the idea.  On my return from Athens I entered it for sale at Sotheby’s in London.  It duly sold for £2500 in their secondary Impressionist Sale in February 2008.  No after effects of the October 1987 exchanges crash in Greek art!  Doubling my money within three months was super and my first investment in Athens proved very encouraging. It was easy to conclude that:

·         Galleries offered bargain opportunities.

·         Bargaining in Greece was not only necessary but also the only way to trade.

·         When other markets struggle and one is new and pushing forward that is a clue to investing in that section of the market.

I had a good run of sales in spite of the stocks crash of October 1987.  The money was coming back in the account in the thousands and the idea was to invest in something major with the accumulating money from all those sales. What and when was the serious question? There were opportunities, but not the one I was looking for, the major opportunity to splash a serious sum of money for the long term! Would I get the opportunity to invest in something important with little outlay?