IT WAS A GAMBLE BUT WAS IT WORTH THE RISK?
IN BUSINESS SOME TIMES YOU JUMP INTO THE UNKNOWN AND LET YOUR INSTINCTS GUIDE YOU. IT WAS A LEAP IN THE DARK AND FAITH IN WHAT I WAS DOING. REWARDS PROMISED TO BE SIGNIFICANT SHOULD THE GAMBLE PAID OFF AND WITH THAT IN MIND AND HOPE I WAS THERE TO DO A THE JOB A TRAVELLED FROM LONDON TO PARIS. I NEEDED LUCK AND OTHERS TO FAIL.
CONTINUED FROM LAST WEEK’S ENTRY!!
Two hundred and fifty euros to you! What a fake!
With very little bidding on earlier lots my turn for action came quickly. Too quickly to be ready!
The Ghika is up for sale and all seems like a dream. The assistant holds it up firmly for bidders to see, but at two metres away I can’t see well. I get up, move two steps forward, try to look for a moment or two, but the auctioneer pays no attention to me. I am an unknown face and name to her. She is in a hurry to finish the auction and get rid of the audience, a runaway train trying to beat the clock and crash unceremoniously into a river or ravine perhaps!
“Five hundred euros for the Ghika,” she asks looking round swiftly. Fortunately for me no hand goes up, no nodding of the head or waving of a catalogue. It happens so quickly, it is like a hundred metres dash. Before I manage to put my hand up, as I’m still trying to sneak a look at the painting, I hear, “two hundred and fifty euros!”
My hand shoots up like a piston not worrying whether I am buying junk or treasure. I act on instinct! I am in a dream or rather a nightmare à la French! I am there. I have to bid. Caution for two hundred and fifty euros is silly and stupid now! A fake can be worth that much.
“To you sir!” shouts the triumphant auctioneer, smiling happily and registering my paddle number. The hammer thunders down with a deafening bang, loud enough to raise the dead, and I am the owner of the questionable Ghika. Auctioneer, assistants and the whole room look happy and smile coyly. Are they laughing at me? Stupid man! Yes, I can still see the sneers. Whoops! Caught, you clever expert in Greek art!
I had bought the fake Ghika! What else could it be at two hundred and fifty euros! O là là! I couldn’t believe what had happened, everything in split seconds. It was like lightning and the thunderbolt had hit me. I was paralysed, numb and floating dizzy. I didn’t know what to make of it. I had bought something by 50% less than the original estimate, even though by accident. I should have been pleased, but I was unhappy! Disappointed! Hugely worried! Everything seemed too shady and unprofessional. Fake, I whispered! Fake! I sank in my chair! Crooked business, I whispered! Damn it! Blast it! The French have caught me once again!
It can’t be a Ghika! Impossible under the circumstances!
I had gambled 300 euros (22.5% commission included) and was still in the dark. I had bought something I hadn’t seen really. Whilst they wrapped the painting at the collection area I had a momentary closer look and my spirits lifted a little. It seemed a strange painting, but fine as far as quality was concerned. However, that was a very quick look, a very inconclusive glance by a very biased new owner.
I did not even look at the Sergei Ponomarew pointillist painting I had paid another three hundred euros for. I was speculating in art. I was an addict and going to Paris and returning empty handed was not on the cards. Yes, I had an addiction to punting on art, but I knew this was backed up by knowledge and expertise acquired over time and hard work. How many others could say the same?
Spirits up on closer inspection
By 11.00pm I was back home in London exhausted, disappointed and more than sure that the painting was a fake. Did I have to gamble five hundred pounds on two paintings at a time when money was so difficult to make? Did I have to travel to Paris and spend another two hundred pounds on travel costs? I was angry with myself, with my impetuosity and adventurous behaviour. Yet, those were the traits that had led me into the art world and the best investments I had ever made.
I went to bed hoping for a miracle, but do miracles happen in our world and nowadays? I am a bad sleeper, and as you can imagine, I slept very little. Extremely worried about the new addition to my stock, I got up and rushed downstairs to the painting at six in the morning. I quickly slashed the wrappings of the packet Ghika had spent the night in. The second set of wrappings came off and I stood, about a metre or two away, staring hard for the first time really at the puzzle called ‘Niclas Ghika’.
I could not make out the subject yet, but I liked what I saw. It was a clever composition with an excellent application of paints in olive greens and soft browns that looked like the hand of Ghika. I took the painting in my trembling hands and had a closer, longer look. The composition was complex, figurative and imaginary. The signature was typical of the artist and, as far as I could say, authentic and correct. Everything appeared genuine and the general feel of the work seemed right, but was it really? Parthenis felt genuine some seven years earlier but …
Appearances can be deceptive. I was not an expert on the artist to declare it genuine at first glance and examination. I was an investo with good knowledge of Greek art, but no expert in any artist.
Turning the painting round to the reverse for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised and relieved to see the other Ghika signature, as good as the first one at the front, and the title of the work, ‘Meditation Sur Le Vide’. The canvas was around forty years old and English, a significant fact as Ghika had lived in London at that time. The style of the work was of the late 1960s early 1970s when Ghika had lived and worked in London. I stared at the back of the painting for a few minutes feeling happier. I turned it round to the front and did the same for even longer. Time and again I repeated the examination; looked, touched and felt the brushwork and paint texture. I had a good feel of the composition, the colours, the canvas and the signatures.
I exhausted myself examining the canvas for about forty minutes. After such concentration, anxiety and worrying thoughts, I felt as if I had worked for months! It was mental and emotional labour of the highest order. How many times had I been through the same ordeal? How many times have I been through the fake or genuine dilemma?
The signs at the front of the painting were positive, so too were the ones at the back. Slowly and gradually I formed a view, a tentative view, about the canvas signed Ghika. I whispered to myself, not daring to say it out loud.
“This painting seems right. It’s a genuine Ghika. It’s a gem, but what about APEL?” (Authenticity, Provenance, Exhibitions, Literature)
Nicolas Hadjikyriacos-Ghika Meditation Sur Le Vide
ANOTHER IMAGE OF A GHIKA WORK!!
Who am I to authenticate such a painting? Who will listen to me? There are many experts and individuals ready to discredit a painting, especially one owned by a small investor/collector. Are there still haughty upper-middle class experts who judge you on appearances rather than on what you own? Bet your last penny on it! If you are Lord or Lady so and so, the famous so and so, this or that celebrity, then everything becomes easy and simple. Everything, nearly everything, is genuine. If you are nobody, then possibly everything you own is a fake! I had felt it many a time! I had seen it many a time! I had experienced such bias personally, unfortunately! “Where did you get the Seago from? Who are you?” interrogated the expert in 1986. Meaning, who are you to own such a painting? Have you stolen it? Are you fabricating a story? Yes, it is still happening. That is the attitude at the major auctions, readers, even though it is never acknowledged!
That is the attitude, and so do not trust what you hear from just one expert, especially if it goes against what you know and feel yourself. Check and re-check with two or three experts the same item. You will be surprised at the variety of opinion, even by the same experts at different times! A few stories are included in these memoirs to illustrate this fact and they are only a sample.
However, in spite of my moaning above, auctions are right to be wary and right to check the credentials of vendors, especially when they are unknown, first time sellers. But what if you are a well-known vendor/collector at the major auction houses, like myself? Well this can still happen, so I was not going to give any so-called expert at any auction house in 1997 the opportunity and satisfaction to humiliate me. Experience is the best teacher and that had already taught me that:
• The opinion of ‘experts’ at auctions should be taken with a pinch of salt and at times ignored and distrusted completely, especially when what they say goes against what you know about the art in your possession. Their primary role is to make money for the auctions, not to authenticate paintings they are possibly not qualified for. They are just brokers, not experts in depth. Yes, on most occasions they are correct, but at times they have no clue and as ‘experts’ can dismiss you and me instantly.
• Even receptionists take on the role of experts at times! I have seen them sending away people with good art. Do not listen to them and insist on seeing an expert when visiting an auction for an opinion!
No exaggeration! It is a fact, it happens. It’s happening today! So watch out!
Authenticating a work of art
Nicolas Hadjikyriacos-Ghika is possibly the best painter Greece has produced in the twentieth century after Parthenis. He is a giant in Greek and international art and as such a museum in his name was established in Athens in the early 1990s. My next move with regards to authenticating the Ghika was a no brainer. Ask the Ghika Museum to confirm the painting’s authenticity.
I am in Athens looking to add to my collection of contemporary artists but more importantly to consult the Ghika Museum about the painting I bought in Paris. Athens is a vast metropolis of six million people, but fortunately the Ghika Museum is in the centre of the city and about twenty minutes’ walk from my base. The walk to the museum is pleasant, but much of the joy of being in Athens is taken away by anxiety and worries about the painting and the potential change it might bring to my finances. Two months after its purchase my belief in the painting had grown stronger and stronger. My experience, the data and photos of other paintings by the artist convinced me that the painting in my hands was a genuine, original Ghika.
Like many collectors and investors I had managed to persuade myself that I was in possession of the genuine article. It was a gem, a two hundred carat diamond, beautiful and by the master himself, even though it had cost less than three hundred pounds!
If the museum finds the painting to be a fake, I will be devastated, I am thinking. It will be the end of a magnificent dream and my belief that I am an expert in Greek art.
With many such thoughts occupying my mind, soon enough I am at the museum briskly climbing the stairs to the reception area. The pandemonium called central Athens is locked outside. It is all quiet and a little eerie inside the museum. I expected something bigger. I expected noisy visitors, but this is a new museum and still in its infancy.
I look at a few of the exhibits and then make my way purposefully to the reception at the end of the main exhibition room. Once I hand over the photos and make my request, the receptionist tells me to return that afternoon for an answer to my inquiry. Anxiety prolonged, agony mounting, I had a few more hours to wait for the verdict of ‘yes’ or ‘no’, genuine or copy!
Athens had been a hunting ground for me for new artists and bargains since 1988. I was a primary art buyer from studios and my connections with several artists were improving year after year. The long-term plan by 1997 was to collect about three to four hundred paintings of known artists, who were on the fringe of becoming more valuable and more recognised. It was not easy but very possible to achieve in the long run. Patience is of the essence in collecting and especially when collecting artists with a rather low profile and price tag.
I was looking for underrated, talented artists!
It was not hard to spend a few hours looking into the stock of two galleries packed with fine art. Was there an artist of interest meeting my strict criteria of quality and price? Wandering in downtown Athens is more than rewarding. The city is an open museum of the ancient and modern, but in spite of all those magnificent attractions, my mind was on the Ghika and the verdict of the museum. Its opinion would be final and there was no way I could argue against that. I believed the painting to be genuine, but my opinion was of no consequence. I was a trader wishing the painting to be a Ghika for monetary gain. What a terrible thought and attitude to art! However, it was not just about money.
• It was justification of a belief.
• It was a challenge to prove to myself that I was not an amateur any more.
• Proving this was important for my ego, my confidence and my business.
By four in the afternoon and just five hours after my first visit, I was once again at the reception of the Ghika Museum. I was tired and in a way terrified. There was no way I could prepare myself for a disappointing answer. I wanted and needed a positive response. With all these thoughts swirling around in my head the receptionist appeared all of a sudden. He knew about the whole issue, but I did not expect an answer there and then from him.
“Yes, sir! The Ghika inquiry!” Calm and cool, he took a few seconds taking a deep breath in.
“Yes, the work is by Ghika. It is in the archives of the artist and it belonged to a doctor Koriat from Paris.”
I stood motionless for a minute or two. It was too good to believe, but really, I was expecting nothing less. The news was tremendous. Flying down the stairs of the museum, I entered the noisy Panepistimiou Street in central Athens with wings to fly. My imagination had the capacity to launch me to the stars. I felt twenty once again. I was just fifty, but I felt as young as a teenager. My lottery ticket had come up finally.
The Ghika was a gift from the gods! Thank you lucky stars! I had pulled the strings and made things happen and luck had finally put the last touches to a glorious investment. I was sure the Ghika was a £15-20,000 painting and it had cost me just £300. What a lift of spirits, what an injection of hope! I was so upbeat. The small gamble had paid off. Luck was with me once again, as it has always been. Yes, luck had played a major role, but I too had moved my little finger to make things happen.
No luck! No business!
No speculation! No accumulation!
No pain! No gain!
Consignment – a smooth passage? Never!
The lessons of the failed sales at Christie’s London in 1993 were still fresh in my memory, so too was the memorable Ralli sale in Athens in 1995. The Greek market was definitely stronger in Athens and as a good investor I had to consider selling the Ghika in the Greek capital. Therefore, before returning to London, a visit to Christie’s Athens was essential. They were steadily establishing a robust Greek Art market so no harm in asking for their opinion and perhaps selling there where the best buyers seemed to compete against each other.
I slept on the idea and early the following day I made my way to Christie’s. I didn’t have an appointment, always advisable especially when consigning important art, but I was hoping the main expert might be in for an impromptu chat and opinion on the painting. She knew the artist’s work well and had already sold enough works by Ghika to know the prices achieved inside out. It was common knowledge anyway.
The omens were very good, beautiful weather, nearly summer, perfect conditions to set one in a good mood and raise hopes and expectations. It was about eleven when I arrived at Christie’s. The lady in charge was not in her office and I lingered about looking at catalogues and admiring the work and new offices Christie’s had created. Quite an improvement from 1992/3! Magnificent offices, really impressive!
I was about to leave the premises, when the expert strutted into the offices. There was an air of superiority about her, which I detested the moment I saw it in anybody whoever they were ………..
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF FLEXIBILITY IN ANY BUSINESS IS A MUST. IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY IN ONE PLACE, THERE ARE OTHER PLACES TO ACCOMMODATE YOUR WISHES OR IDEAS.