Art of Ups and Downs, Like Greece

Never Say Never, Even When it Looks a Never

My struggles in public life, are my struggles in private life too. No better way to describe these ups and downs of life than with my blog entry of today!

The Ralli Bargain Opens My Eyes!

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

“I have thought about the whole issue overnight. If I pay eight million drachmas, I will find it hard to recover my money. My offer now is six million or £15,000. Please relay to the family my new offer and I am sure they will understand. This is still a very good offer.”

I saw the logic and understood his worries, but I was taken aback. I was inexperienced and hard bargaining was a new discipline to me. On asking how I was going to do that, he calmed me down with an assured gesture and head nod.

“Just tell them, they will know. It is still a significant offer, which nobody else will make. I am the only trader in Athens who can buy the painting right away. Nobody has such an amount of money in the market.” I took that in and thought about it for a minute. Nobody! That was some statement. He was absolute and categorical. He was convincing and perhaps he knew.

Disappointed with the new development, I walked hesitantly to the flat of the doctor with a heavy heart and full of apprehension. I had to do things quickly and this was the only loose end I had in hand before I returned to London. I was not looking forward to seeing the vendors and breaking such bad news to them. The door opened, the smiles were many, but soon I got to the point, sober and unhappy.

“My associate is making a new offer of six million. He apologizes, but he believes that this is still a good offer.” I was on unknown territory playing with people’s emotions and expectations. How did I get involved like that?

They remained speechless for a few seconds, smiles wiped off their faces. They looked at each other, they went very quiet and then the old lady spoke. “Do you think he will pay us the six million or will he change his mind again?” The old lady was shrewd and experienced in bargaining. She read my mind. I was unsure.

“I am not sure, but he is serious about the matter. He wants the painting, but he feels eight million is too much and he will be out of pocket. I am of the view that he will stand by his word.” The doctor kept quiet and then declared firmly, “Six million it will be, but within two days or no deal. We cannot wait much longer. You must tell him that.” I could understand the frustration and anger of the doctor, but I was surprised at the urgency of the situation.

Two days before I left for London, but I was not so sure about the deal any more. The dream of making commissions looked a little far away now. It was not a done deal any more. Back at the gallery, I was unable to hide my disappointment and feelings of failure. The messenger spoke and delivered the acceptance of the new offer, provided Mr T paid within two days.

He nodded, “Yes, of course. Everything should be completed by tomorrow. Tomorrow, we will sort it out.” I left the gallery hoping for a deal once again, but I was uneasy and unsure. I had no idea what was in Mr T’s mind, but it was obvious he wanted the painting. The issue was money, it seemed. Did he have the money or was he pretending to be the rich art man of Athens? His collection of Greek art was significant and well over five million pounds at that time, but what was his cash flow?

Early morning, the following day, I was at the gallery expecting to see the cash and the deal to be concluded. Before I opened my mouth Mr T was on the issue pressing like a hawk. He was attacking this time round and he was as sharp as razors.

“I am paying five million. It is still the price a dealer should pay and they should accept. Go and tell them and they will accept. I am sure. I will pay them the money tomorrow morning.” Sharp, crisp and determined! That was an order. I had no appetite to negotiate any more. He was not serious, or if he was, he did not have the money to complete the agreement. “I pay five million drachmas,” I kept repeating to myself. “Five million drachmas.” That was £12,500. “Go and tell them. I will take the money to them tomorrow morning, Thursday.”

That was tough talking, tough negotiating and bargaining, which I had never experienced before. Was that how business was done in Athens? How on earth would the vendors accept £12,500 from an initial demand of £20,000?

With a heavy step and ominous thoughts, I started walking towards the doctor’s flat. Deflated and disappointed with the new development, I was embarrassed to announce the new offer. This man was tough and stingy, I thought. But then again, he was a proper businessman and he was clearly a lot better at it than myself. I was too honest and much fairer than I should be! I was not tough enough or tight enough with my money. The road back to the doctor’s flat seemed miles and miles in spite of the sunny, beautiful day. Walking slowly and taking my time preparing my words for the unfortunate old couple, I stopped at the lights. Red!

Red hit me in the face, dead centre of the forehead. Inspiration! What inspiration? No warnings, no thoughts of it earlier, it just hit me in the face and… wake up man, your chance is here! What chance? Which chance? You slow coach! Slow coach! Are you so stupid?

Bargaining over for Mr T. Is it my turn now?

The idea came out of the blue. It just hit me hard in the head! I am slow at times, such a hopeless slow thinker and dealer. My impression was that Mr T was going to try something else, something spectacular the following day, and when I was already on my way to London. He had brought the price down to a level that I might be able to afford. Why not bargain a little myself, now that I was shown how to do it? Why not? He has bargained the door of the treasure wide open, perhaps I can reap the benefit, if he fails to do so himself!

The bell of the apartment rang loudly, the smiles were wide, but I was not the angel with the good news. “My associate is coming tomorrow with five million in hand. That is his final offer, which I believe he will carry through.”

Eyes bulged, looks exchanged. Sad and disappointed faces! Were they desperate to sell and they did not show it earlier? Were they really in difficulty? Everything in Athens was a show! I did not know, I could not guess and trying to was a futile exercise. Acting was part of the art business and indeed of any major business.

“What can we do?” they both exclaimed. “The final offer and you have the money tomorrow,” they repeated in chorus.

They agreed reluctantly, they looked disappointed but still wanted to sell. That was the moment for me to make my move and state my own interest. There was no downside to this and if it was rejected, so what?

“Regardless of what Mr T does tomorrow, may I suggest something?” They looked at me expectantly. “Failing cash payment of the money tomorrow, I am interested in buying the painting at four million drachmas (£10,000) myself. I have the cash ready, which I can send over to you within three days. To make my intentions more credible, here is a cheque of 500,000 drachmas payable to you right now, provided no deal is done tomorrow with my associate.”

They stared at each other in surprise and hope. They stepped aside for a moment, talked in private, then came back agreeing to everything I had put forward to them. It seemed they had no alternative. They trusted me, they absolutely wanted the deal and so my suggestion to them was acceptable. They were happy that one way or another they had a buyer for the Ralli. They knew I was trustworthy and that I kept my word. I had made a verbal agreement, which was as good as signing a cheque. My word was my signature and the painting was sold for ten thousand pounds.

Within minutes I was out of the apartment in the corridor, breathing fast and deep. I pinched myself hard in the elevator. I was awake! Wow, ow! It was not a dream! How did that happen? How on earth did I think of it finally? I was not dreaming. The Ralli could be mine, if Mr T failed to appear with the money the following day. This could be one of my luckiest days ever. Why ever? Something told me that I was on the road to bigger things. I was now in the driving seat and I had the cash to buy the Ralli right away.

Early the following morning I was on the plane back to London. I had promised to call the sellers to find out if the sale with Mr T had gone through. Anxious but also very hopeful and almost convinced that I had the Ralli in my hands I picked up the phone that same evening and dialled Athens, afraid of what I was to hear. I was desperate to buy the Ralli.

Ten thousand pounds was the most expensive painting I had ever bought up to that day. To buy privately and with no guarantees was very dangerous. Extremely dangerous!

Could I be that lucky? Could the Ralli be mine, even though Mr T had done all the hard bargaining?

“Hello doctor, this is Mr Constant. What happened with my associate? Did he come with the money? Was the deal done?” Momentary silence. I prayed and crossed myself hoping. With an offer of £10,000 on the table I was optimistic, but my associate in Athens was rich. He had the money, but perhaps not at that moment.

“Did my associate pay to get the painting?” I asked in a trembling voice.

“No! Not really!”

“What happened? Please tell me.”

“He came with one million drachmas cash and two cheques payable in three months for the four million. We rejected his offer and he went away.”

They could not see my face. I could not hide my happiness at this news. “Is my offer good enough for you, then?”

“Yes, our agreement stands and the painting is yours for four million.”

“Thank you. I will have the money sent to Athens as promised. You will have it by Monday.”

I was terribly happy, and the expectation of making a good sum of money by November 1989 was sprouting wings to my arms. It was a terrific turn of events. I was proud of myself. Yes, it was £10,000, but I had the money ready, I was an investor looking for a return of 50% within the year. I could not sniff at £5000 profit, could I?

That was February 1989. Money of that amount was pretty substantial to nearly everybody, let alone a fledgling art dealer usually buying in the £3-5000 bracket! I arranged for the money to be sent to Athens to a trusted person who would collect and keep the painting for me until I returned to Athens. Exciting times!

The autumn sales in London were the best venue to sell the Ralli. There were no Greek art sales in London at that time, but both Christie’s and Sotheby’s sold Greek art well in their important sales. I had tested that on several occasions and the results were more than satisfactory. London was a hub of rich Greeks and the main auctions knew well the investors in Greek art not only in London but also in Greece and elsewhere. No problems in selling the painting, I concluded quickly.

No frame? No deal!

The future looked extremely promising. The money was sent to Athens immediately and by Tuesday I was anxiously waiting to hear whether my associate in Athens had paid and collected the painting. The call finally came in the evening.

“What happened?” was my first question. I was extremely worried – it was a huge sum of money, the biggest I had ever paid!

“Yes, we paid for the painting and collected it.”

“How did you carry it?” I asked, as the frame was very big and heavy.

“They didn’t give us the frame. They kept it!”

“What!” I screamed in fury. “Why did you take the painting then? Why did you do that?” I kept screaming and cursing the inexperience of my associate. “Take the painting back to them. Either they give you the frame or have the money back.” I was in such a rage. I slammed the phone down and dialled Athens again, this time calling the sellers, furious at what they had done.

“I am told that you did not give the frame with the painting, doctor. Either you hand the frame over right now or you hand the money back.”

“Oh, that’s fine Mr Constant, your friend can come and collect the frame. We thought she wouldn’t want to bother carrying such a heavy thing.”

I thanked him severely and hung up. Were they that naïve? Perhaps I had expected them to know what I knew about art. Silly me! Yes, lack of knowledge of the subject by so many people made me think of the need for a book to shed light on art investments as early as 1989. I needed a book written by somebody else at that time but no such luck!

The Ralli painting would have been a dead fish in the water without its contemporary frame, inscribed with the name RALLI. The original Victorian frame had accompanied the painting all its life and nobody could divorce the two, otherwise they would have lost their combined value. A frame becomes inseparable from the painting it contains after a while; a good frame lifts the painting to a different level and in this case the painting could not be sold without it. They were made for each other; they were a superb unit, a perfect marriage that had lasted well over a century.

Buying the Ralli painting was the easy part. What was to follow, the selling, was to prove a much more tortuous task. Did the “Hammam Scene” fulfill my dreams or did it ruin my finances, since I had invested with no guarantees?

No guarantees! That is the risk one takes when buying from private sources as opposed to reputable auctions that offer guarantees of authenticity. However, commissions of 12.5% in those days and 25% today do not leave much room for profits on purchases made at auction, unless you spot the bargain.

Buying is a worry, selling is a double worry

Being gullible, accepting what you see and hear on the surface, is not a good trait in any business. Add to that the belief that people are honest, fair and decent and you have a recipe for disaster. I believe in the goodness of the individual and a fair deal makes me feel good. Giving the vendor whatever I honestly believe their property is worth, while at the same time allowing myself a decent profit too, is my moral code. However, such ideas and attitude have cost me dearly over the years and especially in Athens. In the years to come I paid dearly for being so gullible, so trusting of what people said and looked like. In one word, I was naive! The burning question at that time in 1989 was whether the Ralli was a fair deal or not?

Options to consign

The doctor handed the Ralli frame over and that was the end of it. I cannot imagine what I would have done had he refused to do so. I am absolutely honest with the assessment that the frame made 50% of the value of the painting and more. Each piece complemented the other and neither part could stand on its own. In this case it was more so, because the painting was unusually signed on the reverse and the huge, original plaque with the name ‘RALLI’ on the frame went a long way to fill that gap and satisfy any buyer. The issue of the frame was over.

That was a minor issue compared to the headaches and anxiety of selling the most expensive painting I had ever bought. Ralli was an artist of mention and reputation whose work sold well at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s, thus giving me options where to sell. I checked the Art Sales Index, I re-checked the catalogues in my collection and my view was that the painting was worth about £15,000 at auction on a good, normal day. I also trusted the judgement of Mr T who believed it was worth about ten million drachmas or about £25,000.

I was very optimistic, but should I have been, knowing how experts at auction might destroy the best of plans and investments? As a vendor it was not up to me to decide whether the painting was worth x or y. Would I be lucky in consigning the painting or would I stumble and fall on my face? Would my £10,000 shrink to nothing in the months ahead or would they become £20,000 or £30,000? I was very worried and uncertain about the whole transaction, even though I felt confident that I had invested wisely. In a way, I bottled it! Worries and uncertainty crept in and gave me rough nights and days because of the huge amount of money I had paid.

Was that the worst though with the Ralli investment? No! The Ralli investment had nearly emptied my bank account and I was left with a bare minimum for further investments. Investing in contemporary art and other art too, in addition to renovating the house, completed the torment called “penniless”. I had invested £10,000 in the Ralli, and I had no guarantee if the painting proved wrong. I had also invested four thousand pounds in thirty-two paintings by Zenetzis, a contemporary artist I’ll elaborate on later, and there was no guarantee I would sell any of his paintings in my first mini exhibition of September/October 1989. It was a big unknown and gamble on all fronts with the Ralli leading the dance to ruins.

The Ralli investment could be curtains closed for my small enterprise, if proved wrong!

Tomorrow follow the heartbreaks of consigning and selling the painting!

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