Art Can Go Very High Up but, Also Fall Back to Very Low


It Happens Frequently For All Investors to Take it Into Account

The best advice I have given to all my readers here was early in my blogs and in my book Rags or Riches?. It is the first and most important rule in art investment.

Invest in something you like and can live with for many years if not for ever. Investment returns and other considerations follow after this in all the cases.

I will skip many chapters and events in order to arrive at this important chapter when Greek art was in its infancy and things were looking bright for Greek art and Greeks.

Read my long blog tomorrow but here a small taste for all my readers:

Experts and the Ralli Odyssey (1988-1989)

Art experts at auction and elsewhere determine to a high degree the success or failure of anybody involved in art trading and investment. Their opinion bears heavy importance and influence and at times makes a difference of millions. These experts hold the keys to riches but also to rags. Over the thirty years I have traded, art experts’ opinions have condemned my property to death on many occasions. However, knowing how the art world operates, defending and fighting my corner proved worthwhile and rewarding.

Chapter XIV Bargaining à la Grecque

A hammam masterpiece – Theodore Ralli

Athens, February 1989 – Christie’s London, November 1989

As I became more involved with important Greek art I increased my visits to Athens where I tried to acquire quality Greek paintings privately. There were no auctions in Greece similar to other countries in the west until late 1987. Private sellers and the general public did not know about them nor trusted them yet.

It is common knowledge that Greeks distrust each other considerably. I was considered and called “the Englishman”, in spite of being Greek through and through, and thus as an Englishman I was fully trusted. My contacts in Athens were old and new and they were all after one thing and one thing only, money from the Englishman. He is trustworthy, he stands by his word and there’s no need to worry about him gossiping. Saving face in Athens is more important to making money and saving one’s skin even though nowadays such thinking belongs to the past and the good old days.

Costas was an old acquaintance with a few connections. On arrival in Athens in February 1989 he took me to the house of a well-known surgeon. The doctor’s residence was close to the centre of Athens and therefore no problem in getting there on foot and within a short time.

“The doctor has lots of paintings, lots of furniture and carpets, vases, silver, everything,” Costas informed me enthusiastically. “He wants to sell things as he has retired and the family is a little short of cash.”

It was interesting and exciting to hear Costas’ description, but he knew absolutely nothing about art or antiques. It was an Aladdin’s Cave from his description, but how valuable were the doctor’s possessions? I found it fascinating to hear people describing paintings and expressing an opinion on artists and their worth, even though they had no idea about auction prices and art valuation. If only it was that simple!

My involvement in art over the last thirty years speaks of an education in the subject that takes a lifetime, not a momentary look by a layperson.

It was early morning when Costas rang the bell of the doctor’s apartment. The old gentleman welcomed us in and we sat down to a tea. That was unusual for Athens, but then again this was not your usual Greek family. It was a doctor’s family who had made their fortune in Egypt. They had been thrown out of Egypt by Nasser in the fifties and returned to Athens for good, with all their belongings. The Greeks of Cairo were well educated, sophisticated and cultured. Art was one of their major interests and apparently the lady of the house had busied herself at auctions in Cairo.

The walls were covered with beautiful paintings, large and small. The huge apartment was full of antique furniture, vases, all sorts of ornaments and beautiful, exquisite carpets. This was a museum of some quality, but was there a painting I would fall for and wish to buy? The conversation was polite. The doctor’s wife asked discreet questions and it became clear to me that the doctor made the decisions and the lady signed them. It was a matter of status and domestic arrangement with the old couple.

“We would like to sell a couple of things, if the price is right,” they declared honestly!

Soon enough we made the rounds of the apartment. The paintings had a strong French flavour among which were some impressive Poussins and other exquisite old masters. The old lady described some of them and pointed out other items of interest as we walked round. Indeed there were plenty of beautiful things to admire, but my focus was on the paintings and in particular the Greek ones. Amongst them, one stood out – a beautiful hammam scene in an impressive frame inscribed with the name Ralli.

Lessons in bargaining and buying privately

Theodore Ralli

(Greek, [1852 – 1909] Student of Gérôme who followed his master’s orientalist style and subject matter. Ralli is a highly successful artist whose work is collected by Greek and international investors. Auction price £6,000 – 600,000)

The hammam picture, hanging in the centre of the back wall in the most prominent position of the sitting room, outshone everything else in my eyes! Obviously the owners were aware of the importance of the painting, which dampened my spirits a little. However, the Ralli was what I wanted to buy and I set that as my target! My only fear was the price. In Greece private individuals usually open their mouths and blurt out a figure regardless of the actual value of the piece in question.

It was the first time I had found myself in a private home trying to buy art and was feeling quite nervous, although I didn’t show it. I was fully aware of my inexperience, but it was bliss being lost in that Aladdin’s cave. Back to the niceties of Greek conversation, back to tea talk and I am sitting on hot coals, dying to hear about the Ralli painting and their demands. I could not hold back any longer and I declared my interest with an open hand of cards. Who needed experience at such times? How amateurish was that!

“I am interested in that painting only,” I stated calmly, pointing to the Theodore Ralli painting. What a beautiful picture it was in its magnificent contemporary Victorian frame – I was magnetized! Portraying a hammam scene in Cairo with three nude figures of odalisques taking a bath, assisted by their servant, it was sensual, descriptive and exactly what a Ralli work should be. I hoped it was my lucky day!

“How much are you looking for the Ralli?” I asked quietly, scared to hear the figure.

“It will cost you eight million drachmas (£20,000),” stated the doctor.

That was bang on the mark and the painting’s auction value – I would lose money, buying at such a high price. I was keen to buy but not to waste money. It was too expensive for me, and really I was unable to buy the painting with the funds at my disposal. Disappointed and saddened, I got lost in their demand.

Could I negotiate? Could I bargain? It never occurred to me! It was too high a demand to bring down to my resources of about £10,000. Remember this is early 1989 and £10,000 was a significant sum of money, let alone twenty thousand! I thanked them for their hospitality and promised to call them later with my decision. I was happy with the two hours’ spent in the apartment but very unhappy about the asking price and the impossibility of buying the painting. I thought that to keep them guessing was a good policy. Standing at the doorway to leave, I changed my mind and told them frankly that I could not afford to pay that amount of money, but I would work on it and see what I could do.

They looked at each other unhappily. They gave the feeling that there was room for manoeuvre and negotiation, but how? I had no idea! Inexperience was the issue I had to deal with! Slow coach!

A colleague of mine will surely be interested in the painting, I thought. I will be back to have another chat with them soon enough. The rich gallery man, Mr T and a possible small introductory commission, if he decided to buy the painting, played at the back of my mind. I was sure he would show interest in the use to see things.” (Oops!)

· “Pretend you will buy everything and make an offer for all the items on sale.”

· “Making an offer to buy everything does not reveal to them which item you are really after.”

That was lesson one from Mr T. It was taken in but how receptive a student was I? How many more lessons would he volunteer, I wondered? I found out soon after that the process of learning the tricks of bpainting because of its quality and the importance of the artist in 19th century Greek art.

Working on commission in art is not a bad idea and it often leads to lucrative deals. To make at least 10% on such a deal would have covered my expenses to Athens with some money on top. Each trip to Athens cost me about £400 in those days.

Dreaming about getting something out of the morning’s work, I reached my associate’s gallery in Kolonaki. I walked leisurely towards the gallery thinking about the whole issue. Should I mention it to him or not? We talked for about fifteen minutes on this and that, how things were going, what he had bought and how he was always looking for good paintings by renowned Greek artists. One more last thought and then I began.

“Would you be interested in a very good painting by Jacques Theodore Ralli?”

“Yes, of course, I would love to have a Ralli painting, if it is genuine and good.”

· It is never a good idea to make your sources known to the opposition.

· Keep your contacts and sources as secret as possible and keep other dealers away from them.

However, in this case I had to introduce a bigger player in the hope he made the purchase and I collected a 10% introductory commission from the two parties. Our conversation lasted about an hour. I had other matters to attend to, but primarily I had to work hard for the sale of the Ralli. The gallery was about twenty minutes’ walk away from the vendors’ apartment. It was a pleasant walk to make and I had no issue in going up and down several times to complete a deal that potentially would make me a decent sum of money.

Optimistic and full of energy in those years, I had a strong burning desire for business and making money in art. I headed to the vendors’ flat without much hesitation or thought about the difficulties ahead, the twists and turns that lurk in any deal. Simply, I was inexperienced and I thought that a deal would be struck in a few moments, money would be handed on a plate and the whole matter would be over in a minute or two.

Soon enough I was at the vendors’ door where I announced enthusiastically, “I’ve found you a buyer. He is prepared to pay the eight million drachmas or £20,000 you are asking for.” Beaming and full of smiles with the news, arrangements were made for another visit together with Mr T. By 1:30 he and I were back in the vendors’ apartment.

I watched every move of that old fox. We went round the flat once and twice. He stopped periodically looking at things and pretended he was not interested in anything. He was as quiet as a mouse. Fifteen minutes later, he was at the door, thanking the hosts and stating firmly, “Mr Constant will deliver you my message later.”

We walked into the lift and he remarked convincingly,

· “Never state your intentions whenever you go to a houying privately was a long and bumpy one.

“Now, back to the Ralli painting,” he stated in military fashion. He was not called ‘The General’ for nothing, was he? “It’s a good painting and worth the money. Yes, I will make them an offer of eight million drachmas.”

“Should I tell them that?” I asked in a whisper somewhat scared of the sum, to which he nodded affirmatively. The £20,000 was the largest sum of money in one single purchase I had ever involved myself in. But it was not my money, was it?

Happy with the deal / promise, early the following morning I visited the vendors and gave them the news. They were happy and relieved to hear about the offer. After a couple of minutes of talking in private, they returned and declared in unison that they were delighted with the offer. I thanked them for their hospitality and quickly made my way to see the main person in the deal. Flying with excitement and smelling a small sum of money cheered me up. It was money made in a different way, an unexpected development, impossible to imagine a day earlier but so sweet to think about at the time.

Job done, deal finished, I hurried to see Mr T and give him the good news. On my way, I kept thinking how good the painting was and what a great deal it would be for both parties. I was a little jealous, but I had to admit to myself, no money no business.

Mr T was at the gallery, sitting and pondering and wondering at the world of art.

“It’s a deal,” I said. “They accepted your offer.”

“Very good,” was his crisp response, “I shall deal with the details tomorrow morning.”

It was all done and dusted very quickly as far as I could see. The two parties were happy with the deal and the middleman, myself, more than happy too. Was the business concluded or was I too naive and jumping the gun?

The following day, Tuesday, was a beautiful sunny morning and I felt on top of the world as I made my way to Mr T’s gallery for news and reassurance that everything was in place. I had negotiated a purchase on commission for the first time and a good sum of money was to be made. It was another first, another satisfying experience. The offer had been accepted and the rest remained with Mr T; arrange the money for the painting and my expected 10% commission from the buyer and vendors.

Soon I was on Patriarchou Ioakeim Street, the hub of Athenian high society and the location Mr T’s magnificent gallery. On entering the gallery, I knew that something was not right. Mr T was thoughtful, quiet as always but slightly worried and fidgeting. I had no time to waste, I had to push matters and so I came to the point straight away. That was the English way of doing business, but I was not in London. This was Athens and Greece, where different sets of codes and rules applied.

“Well, how is the deal going to be completed?” I asked timidly.

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