WHO IS THE ARTIST?
DOES IT MATTER IF THE ART IS VERY GOOD? NO, IT MATTERS NOT BECAUSE PEOPLE AND COLLECTORS APPRECIATE ART AND INVEST IN ART EVEN THOUGH THEY ARE NOT SURE OR INDEED DO NOT KNOW WHO THE ARTIST OF A PARTICULAR PIECE OF ART MIGHT BE.
IN THE 30 ODD YEARS IN ART BUSINESS AND ART WORLD I HAVE SEEN MANY MAJOR INVESTMENTS IN UNSIGNED WORKS OF ART AND PIECES OF ART WRONGLY ATTRIBUTED TO ARTISTS OR BEARING FALSE SIGNATURES.
Hidden bargain! Greek Ship In Constantinople, 1850s
13th April 1989, Christie’s South Kensington – November 1989, Athens
Early April 1989. Trading any kind of art as long as the profit margins were good was the main idea. The Greek market had been a new area of interest for me since 1986 and I was increasingly moving assets into the Greek market. The Ralli purchase was the biggest investment I had made in Greek art up to that point and I was extremely confident about its sale, even though slightly worried due to the money involved. Believing in the painting and feeling rewarded for that already, I was on the lookout for more Greek paintings.
There were no major art sales in London I did not view. Christie’s South Kensington was one auction house I frequented, regularly buying from them and selling there at times. It was during one of those viewings that I spotted the Carlo Brancaccio painting, estimated at £1,000-1,500. It was a good investment opportunity. The painting was unusually included in an evening marine sale, rather than a 19th century European paintings sale.
The auction had already begun when I arrived at Christie’s well-attended sale. The first thing I noticed on entering the auction room was the presence of a Greek investor/dealer. I immediately wondered what he was doing at a sale like that. He bought only Greek art, something I was sure about. Was there a Greek painting in the sale I had missed during the viewing? I had the catalogue and so I started looking feverishly through the images. There must be something I had not spotted I reasoned. One after the other I checked the images, and then, in a faint black and white image, I thought I saw something like a Greek flag in the centre of a painting.
I had to do something you normally cannot do while an auction is in progress. One group of paintings was stacked up against the wall and among them the large painting with possibly a Greek flag. The size revealed which painting it would probably be, so I plucked up the courage and tilted the paintings on top of it carefully but quickly enough so that I did not attract anybody’s attention. No doubt and dead centre, there was clearly a Greek flag on the main ship in the painting.
How did I miss such a thing at the viewing was a mystery to me? Was it too late to bid? Absolutely not! The painting was up for sale in about ten minutes. The estimate was £800-1,200, well within my reach. I was eager and ready to bid as I had already bought the Brancaccio earlier for £1,200, well below the sum I had been prepared to pay.
The Greek subject canvas was the one I should have spotted and targeted for investment and a quick return. When the impressive painting was put on the sale easel, I asked myself in anger where had it been in those rooms and how had I missed it? It was a magnificent size of 70 x 110 cm in a beautiful contemporary broad frame and in original, dirty, untouched condition. Was I blind or was I asleep during the viewing? The total size of the painting was close to 1.5 metres width. I missed it during viewing, but luckily it was in my periscope now. It was not too late.
The bidding started and quickly accelerated beyond one thousand pounds. I was in the thick of things at £1,500. Cool and confident, I kept bidding and finally the painting was mine at £1,800 plus commissions of 10%. I was excited to have bought the Brancaccio, but thrilled with the View of Constantinople. I had bought a lovely painting the auctioneers had catalogued as English School, with no signature. As far as I was concerned,
I had bought value for money regardless of whether there was a signature or not.
Most importantly, I had invested in a topographical painting that would be desirable to both Greek and Turkish collectors. Hoping for a hidden signature made such a purchase even more exciting.
Impatient to examine the painting closely, itchy and anxious to find out who the artist was, I collected the magnificent canvas of Constantinople the following day and started work on it. It was a fantastic painting in beautiful, untouched condition. Painted circa 1850 the style was great and spoke of a very good artist. It portrayed a Greek ship standing proudly on the Bosphorus, a smaller boat with Greek sailors close by, and another magnificent ship flying the Turkish flag. It was a fantastic painting with great potential.
Attributing a painting to an artist
Who was the artist? Attributing the painting to an artist from the style and subject was difficult and required experts of considerable knowledge and experience. I was nowhere near being an expert, even though I thought I was a well-informed investor. I had a good idea about some basic on the spot search and research which was:
· Signature: was the painting signed? There was no signature in the obvious places. Off I went to clean the painting a little, hoping to uncover one. A small wet cloth (a dab of water does not damage oil paintings) was passed over the obvious areas on the canvas where a signature might have been, but no luck in finding one.
· Similar images: the research started from home and my library of catalogues. I thumbed through a couple of hundred 19th Century paintings catalogues looking for anything remotely similar, but still no luck. Visiting the Victoria & Albert museum library yielded no results either; similarly at the Courtauld Institute. Although there was no positive result, I lost no interest nor was I disappointed. I loved the challenge. I loved researching and searching for treasure! Expectation and hope are immense when buying something unknown, but worry and anxiety are also co-travellers. Investing in art involves a degree of gambling, like horses and the lottery. Will I win or lose? It was not like that of course, this was genuine business, but at times it felt exactly like a significant gamble.
· Restoration expert: the next stage of checking was with my restorer who cleaned the painting lightly. I was hoping for a signature to come through, but no signature was revealed. However, the cleaning did reveal beautiful mosques and buildings of Constantinople in the background, something that had been covered by the thick film of dirt accumulated over the years. Those uncovered, exquisite details elevated the desirability of the piece and increased the value of the painting considerably.
The painting I had bought represented value for money, signature or no signature!
Unsigned art might be very valuable, if the quality and subject are there.
Who wouldn’t want to buy a magnificent view of Constantinople (Istanbul)? The ship with a Greek flag in the foreground, the Turkish flag in the middle and mosques beyond would draw both Greek and Turkish investors. I was hoping to double my money at least, as the auction price of £2000 I had paid was indeed very low.
Whom should I show it to next, since I could not come up with an attribution? Who might help me to identify the painting? I knew many people in the fine arts, but few who might have the knowledge and expertise to offer a firm attribution. I never liked to sell anything before knowing precisely what it was, as there was a risk of selling something valuable well below its real, market value.
· Auction experts: the next stage was to consult experts. So off I went to test the experts’ knowledge at Sotheby’s. The masterpiece of Constantinople became the centre of serious discussions. The British Paintings’ expert could not come up with an attribution; the 19th century director had only suggestions and guesses; the Victorian paintings’ expert, shrewd, clever and extremely knowledgeable, also failed to deliver a definite attribution.
Three experts from the British, the Victorian and the 19th Century European paintings’ departments loved the painting but found it impossible to attribute to any particular artist. “Lovely painting,” they stated, no attribution, but “worth some money,” – that I already knew, but I also knew where to go next. The Greek flag and Greek sailors in the centre of the painting dictated.
Constantinople will sell in Athens, November 1989. The painting was no headache. It was an absolute gem, a beautiful view of mid-nineteenth century Constantinople and because of that very commercial. I had already spoken to a dealer in Athens and after my intensive research to identify the painter had failed, I decided to sell it quickly, make the money and carry on. In November 1989 I took the Constantinople painting with me to Athens, where I sold it to a dealer for a friendly £5000. No bargaining, no hassles! Making 150% profit on £2000 within six months was absolutely magnificent. That was another important sum of money supporting my belief that the Greek market was the art section to focus on.
The dealer consigned the Constantinople painting with Mihalarias Auctions in Athens, where it sold for £8000 plus 20% commissions in March 1990, thus proving to me that patience and playing the game right leads to rewards, great rewards. I was happy for my associate, happy for myself and for everybody in the deal.