SOME TIMES YOU TRUST THEM AND IT COSTS YOU A LOT OF MONEY!!!
I am not trying to smear the art experts at auctions. What I am trying to do is to make aware my readers of the dangers of trusting the view of experts blindly. As I wrote in last week’s entry I had many instances when I had the opposite view to their expertise. There are still many cases where I disagree with experts and their views. One example was beamed to us all on BBC FAKE OR FORTUNE recently.
Athens, February 1998
“””PHOTO TO APPEAR SOON TODAY BUT SHOULD ANYONE WANTS THE IMAGE HERE IT IS IN MY BOOK RAGS OR RICHES PAGE 336, ILLUSTRATED IN COLOUR WITH ITS ORIGINAL FRAME”””
An early impressionist and hugely collectible artist who perfected his art by studying at the Athens School of Art, then by association with the best artists of Paris of the early 1870s and Brussels between the years 1872-1884. Auction price range £5000-400000)
Accessing quality, genuine paintings of important artists is indeed very hard. Commissions have to be paid, locked doors have to be opened, but once you overcome this hurdle it is so exciting when you find something to buy at a reasonable price. The ‘Hammam’ of Ralli was one such example when connections had to be paid for their services and introductions.
Meeting Dems in Athens in February 1998 was a major event. Talkative, persuasive and a modern Demosthenes, he never stopped talking, and never failed to win an argument. With a warehouse full of contemporary art, there was always something to surprise, something for Dems to get going. He was the man for bargains in contemporary art and on occasion 19th century paintings of some value.
We walked into the warehouse in the centre of Athens. Wow!! Endless rows of paintings, innumerable stacks of art extending to the ceiling and beyond. Never seen anything like that before- a feast to the eye!
Wasting no time the show began. No delays, no warnings, straight to the job of collecting some money from the ‘Englishman’. I was the ‘rich collector from London’ with cash to spend, and so off Dems went. Painting after painting was shown to me, but no joy for him. He was trying hard and was getting rather agitated because there was nothing to interest me. He ploughed through rows and stacks of paintings and became more exasperated and flashing red by the minute. Another row was done when suddenly out of nowhere appeared the ragged, old, landscape painting.
It was last, behind everything else, literally lying down on the floor, as if fallen down from the wall. “You have to like this,” he commented exasperated. “It is good and old. I thought I had lost it and it cost me some money.” Dems was desperate to sell something, but I was cool, composed and on the hunt! I had to be selective as the money was scarce.
“Bring it over, Dems,” I asked him politely, expecting a copy of a 19th century artist.
“I forgot this painting behind there. What a mess!” he admitted. Holding the painting carefully now, he walked towards me praising the quality of the landscape and the artist. Handing the painting to me, he said seriously, “this is a very good painting!”
It was indeed a good, forgotten and neglected painting that time had taken its toll on. There were two gaping holes, but fortunately they affected only the hill to the top right of the painting. A hazy film of filth was making it look dreamy and faded, but I had seen enough such paintings at auctions to visualize what was hidden behind the surface of dirt, dust, varnish and smoke. Remember the unsigned Istanbul painting and what appeared once it had been cleaned?
“Where did this come from Dems?” Provenance was first on my mind.
“I bought it from the family of the artist. They could not fix it and so they sold it to me. I could not afford the other paintings they had, as they demanded too much money.” While Dems talked and talked his painting up, I expertly applied saliva to the bottom left of the painting where a faint signature, hidden below the dirt and grime, slowly emerged crystal and clear.
I had no doubt that the painting was by Pantazis, the Greek master who had worked in Paris for a year or two and twelve years in Brussels until his premature death in 1884 at the age of thirty-six.
Although the painting was very dirty and in a poor state, it was of high quality. I knew that no restorer in Greece could do the job required to bring the painting back to its old glory, which is why the owners had got rid of it. There was a chance for me to buy at a low price, if I played my cards right. The dirt and damage was so much that I felt a sum close to £5000 or less might be acceptable. The war in Iraq was on and the 1990s recession was still crippling prices.
The next thing that was of great importance to me was the custom-made frame of the painting. It was an original frame, in untouched condition, that suited the painting perfectly. It was clearly a frame the artist had chosen himself and had made to order. The carving of the acanthus and finish were exceptional and I believed the frame by itself was worth close to a thousand pounds. My thinking was, and I knew from experience, that an excellent painting lies within an excellent frame and that the two are inseparable. A Pantazis landscape, sold at his studio sale in Brussels, had a similar custom-made frame I was to learn a few years later.
The Pantazis was an absolute gem of a painting in its original, untouched condition and original carved frame. The bargaining began. It is never easy, but I knew that Dems wanted to sell something. I felt that he wanted to get rid of the painting possibly because of its condition, but more so because he wanted hard cash to move on.
“How much are you asking Dems?”
“The painting cost me one million, two hundred thousand (drachmas) two years ago. I must have at least one and a half million for it.” (£5,000)
“No way, that amount Dems. I’ll have to spend money to fix it and lord knows how it’s going to look after restoration.” I knew it would look magnificent, but I didn’t have to tell him that did I?
“I must make at least 20% on my investment, please,” he pleaded, at which point I offered 1,200,000 drachmas as a final offer.” “No, no, no! I can’t work for nothing,” Dems shouted angrily. I loved the painting, but I also wanted Dems to make a few pounds too. It was his job.
“I’ll give you one million four hundred thousand.” (£4500) It was impossible to buy such a painting at auction and with such a frame and history.
“That’s a deal,” agreed Dems, so we shook hands on it and thus the Pantazis came into my collection.
In original, untouched condition since its inception some one hundred and thirty years earlier I knew I had a painting of quality that needed respect, sympathy and gentle handling to reveal what was hidden underneath. I was sure that the professionals in restoring paintings in London were up to the task of bringing the painting back to its old glory and condition. It was exciting times once again.
The painting was worth close to £10,000 and I planned to sell it through Sotheby’s in 1999. I knew that experts usually do not like restored and relined paintings, unlike the Greek collectors, so I thought it advisable to ask the expert in charge whether he preferred the painting restored or not. He advised me to restore it. Restoration is important at times thus a few quick tips about that:
• Find the best restorer possible at an affordable price.
• Take as many photographs of the painting front and back before restoration. These are your documents that the painting is old and it was in original condition before having it relined and restored.
• If the original frame is damaged, have it restored but never change or replace it.
After I had photographed it many times front and back for reference, Robert Mitchell undertook the restoration job. This brought the Pantazis masterpiece back to its earlier glory and took about six months.
By 2001 Sotheby’s expert had been moved from the Greek sales section abroad and another team of experts were running the Greek Paintings sales. When I presented the Pantazis for sale they wanted authentication of the painting in spite of its provenance. That was upsetting, but no issue. This was not the first time they had made things difficult for me! I decided there was nothing to lose in having the painting authenticated by the experts of the National Gallery of Athens, the accepted authority on matters of authenticity. I must add that these same Sotheby’s experts in 2007 catalogued three Parthenis’ works, which sold for over one million pounds, but later proved to be good fakes. Who were the vendors? Who had vetted them?
Experts want to exercise power over investors!
There is a resident expert on Pantazis in the National Gallery of Athens. There are also several so-called experts on the artist around the world. I decided to seek the opinions of the resident expert at the Athens National Gallery and an expert working independently out of Brussels.
The Brussels expert saw a photo of the painting and wanted to see it in person indicating that he believed it to be by Pericles Pantazis. He came to London in July 2001 and I took the painting to him at his friend’s house in Hyde Park. His friend was also present at our meeting.
The expert was a young man, about thirty, very polite, but inexperienced, it seemed to me, in matters of paintings, judging from the way he handled and held the Pantazis work. How did he come to be an expert? Who baptised him with the title, I wondered.
He looked at the front of the painting and said, “Yes, it is by the artist. Yes, the signature is the artist’s. It is Pantazis’ signature.”
Then he turned the painting to the back. He looked for a moment at the relined painting and continued, “I am not sure now. I do not think so, now looking at the back of the painting.” (The old support of the painting is French through and through and it is the original one.)
“What do you mean, you are not sure now? You just said that the painting is signed by Pantazis and that the signature is of Pantazis,” I stated in disbelief.
“Yes, I did,” he replied shakily, “Pantazis might have signed the painting, but it was not necessarily his work, it might belong to another artist.” He was serious and also categorical.
I could not believe my ears. It was a shocking expertise. He doubted the painting because it was relined and his view on the signature was simply incredulous. Was he a joke? Was he really an expert on Pantazis? Pantazis was a young student in 1871-72. Why sign another artist’s very good work? Nobody knew the young student Pantazis in Paris and his work was always cheap during his lifetime either signed or unsigned. Did he know that there was another similar painting in a major collection, which other experts on Pantazis endorsed?
Experts are not of the same quality, and that I know myself from personal experience. God save us from such experts! Meeting in person for the first time a so-called ‘expert’ on an artist was rather falling from the skies. I was mightily disappointed with that expert, not only because of his lame expertise but also his lack of experience in the field. I was naturally upset, but I already knew I had a genuine Pantazis and needed no opinion from a third person.
The painting was undoubtedly a Pantazis because of the provenance of the painting, the signature, its quality, original condition and contemporary frame. It was the whole package.
I MUST ADD HERE THAT IN ALL DISPUTES OF ATTRIBUTION RELATING TO GREEK PAINTINGS, THE EXPERTS OF THE NATIONAL GALLERY IN ATHENS HAVE THE LAST WORD. YET, THE EXPERT AND AUTHOR OF PANTAZIS MONOGRAPH MRS OLGA MANZAFOU-POLYZOU WAS NOT TAKEN ON BOARD BY OTHER EXERTS AND INDEED AUCTIONS IN LONDON.