THE REAL STORIES THAT MUST BE LESSONS TO MANY!!
AFTER SIX YEARS OF DEALING WITH THE TOP AUCTION HOUSES OF THE WORLD, I WAS SURE OF WHAT TO DO, WHAT TO INVEST IN AND WHAT I BOUGHT AS THE MOST EXPENSIVE PAINTING EVER. I WAS FULL OF CONFIDENCE AND COUNTING MY CHICKEN.
ALAS, I KNEW NOTHING OF THE PLANS OF OTHERS WHO HAPPENED TO BE EXPERTS TOO!
SELLING CAN BE A TORTURE
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!
Chapter XV Trustworthy and Untrustworthy Experts
Opinion of the Senior Director and expert at Sotheby’s
June 1989, London
Consigning any property at auction is extremely worrying and at times traumatic even for the seasoned traders. Needless to describe how it must feel when it’s only once in a lifetime. Even though the following is just basic advice, please follow this as much as you can. When consigning an important painting for sale at a major auction house one needs to know that:
· It takes about four months from the moment one consigns a work of art with a major auction house till the day of sale.
· There is another wait of about five weeks to receive the proceeds after the sale.
· If the item is very important and there is a need for further research by the auction the whole process will take longer than six months.
Such details are very important especially when a seller needs the money urgently, in which case, a smaller, faster selling auction room might be more appropriate. In such a case one needs to know that:
· Smaller auctions take a shorter time to sell and some sell and pay within one week.
· The negative side of this route is that smaller auctions might sell for less, as they attract a smaller audience and less affluent buyers.
· It might also be more expensive to sell with these fast selling auction houses.
· If there is no urgency to sell, then selling at a reputable auction house is the most rewarding and the one we strongly advise.
The Ralli sat at home for a few months. I enjoyed it, but I could not afford it, in all honesty. The time to take it to the auction was late June, for entry into the November 19th Century European Paintings Sales. The paintings in those sales ranged from £3000 upwards, so I had no worries about any auction accepting the painting.
Setting off from home at about 11.00 with my wife and children, I assumed I would be at Sotheby’s London at about 11.45. I was very hopeful and relaxed about the consignment process. The research was done; I had the latest prices and felt well prepared to defend the painting’s value and possible sale in a top auction. Nevertheless, one can never be sure about anything until the whole business is over and money is in the bank.
Losing money on the Ralli trade was not on the cards. I was one million per cent sure it was an ace! It was a beautiful painting in its heavy contemporary frame and a lot of inborn optimism filled me with confidence, perhaps overconfidence. My wife, however, never comfortable with my art venture, was anxious and apprehensive knowing I had paid top money for the painting. Our two boys played happily in the back of the car, while I at the front waited for events to unfold in a positive, happy mood.
Through Hampstead and then Regents Park with no problems I was soon at Sotheby’s in George Street. On arrival I asked for the director of the 19th century paintings department, whom I knew from earlier consignments and purchases. He was actually one of the experts that had a look at the unsigned Constantinople painting I refer to elsewhere. It always helps when you know the people you are dealing with.
The expert arrived, but he looked as if he was in a hurry. A cold breath of air in mid-summer swept over the consultation room of Sotheby’s. It seemed I had interrupted his business or upset his social life or something, even though he was at work and supposed to be making money for Sotheby’s, wasn’t he? Not a good omen. Polite greetings over and then he was on to the business of examining the painting.
It took the top expert of the 19th century department a few seconds, literally seconds, to look at the Ralli and say quickly, dryly and tersely and I quote, “two to three thousand pounds, I believe.”
THE RALLI PAINTING IN ORIGINAL, UNTOUCHED CONDITION
“Two to three thousand,” I mumbled, unable to grasp what he was saying. I felt numb, dazed and confused. It took me a few seconds to comprehend what he had just uttered. I could not process the figures and I am good in Maths. Doubting what I had heard, I asked in disbelief, “Did you say £2-3000?”
“Yes, that is my opinion.” I was shocked hearing that figure twice. My head began spinning and my balance began to fail me. I was ready to collapse. Somehow, I composed myself and asked shakily, “Why is that?”
“That is my opinion!”
Was this man out to destroy me? No doubt about that. No mistake – two to three thousand! Come on man! React! Say something! Defend yourself! Defend the painting! Slowly, I was coming back to my senses realizing the seriousness of the situation. Extremely worried and upset, I finally comprehended that that was no joke and no misunderstanding. I was in deep trouble.
Anger took over me. I was boiling mad. I was beyond control and restraint at this point. I was furious.
“Why two to three thousand pounds? Explain to me, why? What was better about the Ralli painting you estimated £6-8000 in one of your sales last year? Was it the fact that it was 20 x 15cm? Was it the fact that it was just an unattractive portrait? I have a popular composition here of 60 x 50 cm and you are telling me £2,000-3,000 estimate? Do you think I stole the painting or found it lying on a pavement?” I screamed at him.
“This is my opinion. If you don’t like it, take your painting somewhere else!”
I couldn’t believe my ears! That was not the director of Sotheby’s I knew! That was no Sotheby’s expert! That was so unlike him! What was the problem? Why so rude? It was unbelievable to me. In no time he was gone and I was left standing in a cold sweat, fuming with rage.
The director had other important matters to deal with and didn’t care about a client, about his business nor about his employers’ business. That was the first and last time I ever experienced such behaviour and attitude at Sotheby’s. This was 1989, five years after I had first done business with the auction house. By then, many experts knew me and I knew well how the auction business was conducted.
I had a good idea what was valuable and what was worthless! How could Mr T and I be wrong at the same time? Virtually impossible! Unsteadily, I walked out of Sotheby’s in a daze. The world had collapsed around me. The top expert of the 19th Century European paintings at Sotheby’s had demolished my dreams and my confidence as a dealer. This was a knockout blow ruining everything. I took it badly, but my wife even more so after I narrated the events to her.
“Why was he so abrupt and so against the painting?” she questioned almost tearfully.
“ I don’t know,” I retorted angrily. “He was in a hurry, he was rude and he wasn’t interested. The b…! He destroyed me in there,” I admitted in defeat.
Yes, your confidence, knowledge and experience can go up in smoke in seconds in the hands of these experts. Watch out! Twenty-four years on but the scars of that event are still with me. They are as vivid today as they were then. How helpless, how unhappy and downtrodden I felt! I hated the man! Perhaps he hated me too. That’s why he was so against the Ralli picture. Down the drains went £10,000. Down went all my dreams, unless he was wrong and biased for reasons of his own.
Was there a way to save the boat? Was there another expert who would look at the painting with a more positive eye and view? Virgin Mary, help me! I crossed myself, I begged and and prayed. I was lost in my misery and inability to think straight and reasonably. The top man at Sotheby’s had condemned me to bankruptcy with his verdict and at the same time destroyed my thinking processes. I was paralysed, in shock.
Opinion of the Senior Director at Christie’s
I sat in the car for a few long minutes, yes completely lost and incapable of thinking. I needed time to recover and regain my senses. Driving was out of the question in that terrible emotional and psychological state I found myself in. I was confused. The world had gone topsy-turvy, my dreams were dashed and my finances were in ruins. On top of that, I had my wife next to me worrying and tearfully pressing, “What are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I have to think. Let me think!” I begged. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it might have been the end of the road for my art venture and business. That investment was about one quarter of all my art investments. The highest investment I had made and it was wrong, according to the top expert at Sotheby’s.
The car was facing south. I switched it on and drove for a minute, or half a minute towards Bond Street and then…inspiration, second time round regarding this painting! No joking! Why not Christies? Unprepared, unplanned, everything on the hoof, which was dangerous, but desperate for a quick solution, “why don’t I go to Christie’s?” I thought out loud. They are as good as Sotheby’s and on many occasions better than Sotheby’s. Turning left on Bond Street I headed down to St James Square. Hope returned, logic returned, instinct and rationale guided me there. It was the second largest auction in the world and right now perhaps bigger than Sotheby’s. I recovered my cool, my composure. Christie’s, why not Christie’s? I know the director of the 19th Century Paintings Department. He helped me before and he might like the Ralli. Besides, Christie’s had sold the artist well before and they do have a good Greek clientele.
While these thoughts were bouncing in my brain, the car carried me to Christie’s main offices on St James Square as if by magic. The roads were empty, the way was clear and free and that was auspiciously positive for a man who believes in omens. I had fallen at the first hurdle with the Ralli, but I was more than capable of getting up and carrying on. I was an experienced dealer/investor by now and I was not going to be put off from seeking a second opinion, a second expertise and perhaps a third one, if need be. It had happened before with smaller value items, it might happen again.
Out of the car in front of the prestigious auction house. My step was quick now, adrenalin running back to normal and my hopes once again as high as if the Sotheby’s affair had never happened. It was very quiet in the main reception, and on asking for Lord Poltimore I was told he would be with me in a few minutes. Lucky, I thought. Good omen.
Heart beating fast, apprehension and unease returning and there was my friend with a huge smile and strong handshake. “Come to this room here. Let’s see what you have got for us,” he encouraged me warmly. I knew the Director of Christie’s from earlier transactions and he had been as good as gold to me in earlier deals. I was at the right place, I felt normal and calm once again. What a difference in reception and attitude? Why didn’t I come here first? Why did I put myself in such trouble by opting for Sotheby’s? I was at ease now! I was more hopeful, my emotions were positive and by the time I reached the private rooms of Christie’s I was once again a confident investor, an investor who could once again defend the painting’s merits and quality!
Have a second and third opinion! Experts err!
The Ralli experiences were not completely new to me. I had had experiences with other paintings where the experts disagreed with my view and my expectations. I chose to look for another option and another auction, where hopefully I would have a more favourable opinion.
Sanderson Wells is a good English artist, mainly of equestrian subjects. I had an oral agreement to take a pair of paintings by him to New York for sale. That I did personally in 1987. Christie’s New York rejected them on the spot as not by the artist. I was very disappointed because I had bought the pair at Sotheby’s, Sussex in England. How could they be wrong? Well, I already knew that experts do make mistakes too. Knowing that very well I sought a second opinion in New York. I took them to Sotheby’s. Their view was that they were not by the artist and so…
Sotheby’s Billinghurst in England sell them as genuine Sanderson Wells, Sotheby’s New York reject them as not by the artist! Interesting, isn’t it?
I was not worried about them being unsold because at worst I could have returned them to Sotheby’s. Remember that there is a guarantee of five years for authenticity at the major auctions, so there were no worries about losing my money. Instead, I offered them for sale in a provincial auction where they sold for £2500. The lesson is crystal clear and it should be learned and applied: have a second and third expert opinion on your artwork. It always helps.
So what happened with the second expertise on the Ralli at Christie’s?
The Christie’s director couldn’t wait to see the Ralli. Lord Mark Poltimore looked at the painting for a few seconds at the front. He turned it round and had a good look at the back, smiled and declared clearly and with no hesitation, “I like it! This is a good painting Peter! How much do you need for it?”
He was kind enough to ask how much I needed to cover my costs. What a contrast to the expert at Sotheby’s who in his own way had thrown me out of Sotheby’s! What a difference of attitude and client care! “I paid £10,000 for it,” I stated timidly, scared to mention the high figure I had paid in Athens.
“No problem, we can sell it well. I like it. It’s very attractive and commercial. No worries!”
“How much do you feel it might sell?” I asked hesitantly. I was indeed afraid. The shock at Sotheby’s had not gone completely.
“I would think about £15,000,” he stated confidently. “What is your feeling about it? You know better than me!”
That statement of Lord Poltimore made me feel good. I was considered an expert on Greek art! Perhaps he was polite in saying that, but perhaps he believed that too.
“I believe between £15-20,000 on a good day.” That’s how much I thought it was worth the first time I set eyes on the painting.
Confidence returned, optimism returned and the Ralli was the masterwork once again. It was a collector’s gem and the expert at Christie’s supported what Mr T and I believed. How I wish I had never gone to Sotheby’s in the first place! How I wish I had dealt directly with Christie’s and Lord Poltimore! Yet, I was still worried and anxious. The seeds of doubt had been sown at Sotheby’s. It was hard to forget the hammering in the hands of their top expert. Damning expertise, hard to discount, but equally impossible to accept.
The consignment documents were ready within minutes and the whole business was concluded in about fifteen minutes. Those were dream saving minutes for my art venture or should I call it adventure? I could not afford a huge loss! Simply, I would probably have gone under, if the Ralli had proved wrong.
Saying goodbye to Mark Poltimore, he added encouragingly, “Don’t worry. We will sell it very well. It’s a lovely painting with a great subject from a very good artist.”
I literally flew out of Christie’s and into the car where my wife was waiting anxiously for good news, in more agony than I was a few minutes earlier.
“Good news! Great news! He liked it and it will go into the November sale with an estimate of £10,000-15,000. He believes it will sell for about £15,000.”
I was a different person now and absolutely thrilled with the events at Christie’s, but I could not forget the events at Sotheby’s. They were unprecedented, they were unbelievable and they were unacceptable by any standards and any circumstances. Why had Sotheby’s Director behaved like that? Why did he treat me in that way? What did he have against me or against the painting?
The two experts had a completely different opinion and that was something very rare. The opinion was 500% different in estimate, the opinion was, “I do not like it,” with Sotheby’s and “I love it,” with Christie’s. That does not happen often, if ever! I was in the dark! I was puzzled and confused and needed answers for my peace of mind!
19th Century Paintings’ catalogue at Sotheby’s reveals surprises!
The summer of 1989 was very long. I was in the middle of serious investments in art, improving my domestic life and looking hopefully towards the future. Living in hope for the Ralli painting and dreaming about the Exter painting’s potential, time passed unobserved. Several small value paintings were bought and I was active in many areas and fields. Alexandra Exter and the Russian Avant Garde was one very serious area I was educating myself in. Exter was a great artist to invest in, in 1988 and at that price.
The issue of the rejection of the Ralli by a top expert at Sotheby’s was playing on my mind and puzzling me nonstop. It was impossible to forget it, as everything that had happened was inexplicable. A Sotheby’s expert treating a good client like that was really extraordinary. It was sitting heavy on my stomach and kept me questioning and reliving the horrible episode week in week out. Why had he delivered such a devastating blow? Why had he been so rude, unfair and abrupt? I felt it had been deliberate, but I could not put my finger on his motives. I had been stabbed in the back and would feel satisfied to take revenge with a serious complaint about his expertise. My plan was to wait for the sale at Christie’s and, if the painting did well, complain to Sothebys’ management. I never keep quiet when I am in the right and I accept responsibility for the things I do wrong.
Please do not keep quiet when you know people have been unfair and unjust! Complain and take your case higher and higher! If you must take a case to court, then you should!
Important auction catalogues come out about three to four weeks before a sale and I was eagerly awaiting the 19th century ones from Christie’s and Sotheby’s. For some reason I was expecting a piece of information to complete the puzzle that had started four months earlier. Was it instinct, irrational mind setting, craziness, hopelessness or what?
Christie’s catalogue came first and the Ralli looked exceptionally attractive. Estimated at £10-15,000, it was beautifully illustrated in colour and placed in a very good spot in the catalogue. It was great work by the expert. I could not be happier. Another Greek painting was also in the sale and both paintings looked magnificent. That would attract the buyers, I thought happily and optimistically.
A day or two later, the catalogue from Sotheby’s arrived. Flicking through the pages, nothing caught my eye, no surprises but then…then I gasped. I shouted! I screamed! I screamed time and again!
“The crook! The cheat! ! I have him now! I’ve got him!” I screamed wildly. I was beyond control! I went crazy! “That’s it! That’s it!” Who keeps me quiet? “What a con!”
Finally, I knew why Sotheby’s expert had been so rude and so out of character. I knew why he had sent me packing within a minute, in a manner I had never encountered at Sotheby’s ever before or since. Let me add and make absolutely clear right now. I have sold and consigned at least one hundred paintings with Sotheby’s over the years and have never received such treatment by any expert, regardless of the quality of my property and that also included that man up to that moment. He had accepted paintings for sale on many other occasions from me but had never behaved rudely or in any way inappropriately at any time before the Ralli event.
Staring at me was a painting catalogued as by Theodore Ralli and estimated at £6,000-8,000, which was bought as a T. Ralli a few months earlier by an investor. What a monstrosity! What an affront to the artist! What a terrible painting to be catalogued as a Jacques Theodore Ralli, when it was obviously signed by somebody called T. Ralli Scaramanga! What a terrible error of judgement by the director! The top director of the 19th century paintings department at Sotheby’s had included in his sale a painting which, to any amateur, was clearly not a Theodore Ralli, while at the same time had rejected a beautiful, genuine Theodore Ralli.
Yes, I was astounded. This man, I was convinced, knew that he was intentionally cataloguing a work of art that was clearly not by the Greek artist Jacques Theodore Ralli. Why wasn’t the painting a genuine Ralli?
· The subject of that painting, a peasant sitting with a pipe, was not even close to any known work by Ralli.
· The style of the painting bore no resemblance whatsoever to the classical style of the artist.
· The painting was signed T. Ralli Scaramanga, another artist.
Yet ‘the expert’ had included it in his sale with an estimate of £6,000-8,000, whereas the real McCoy had been rejected with the words “that’s my opinion” and “£2,000-3,000 I believe.”
It was not difficult now to put two and two together. Clearly he did not want a second Ralli in the catalogue that would be such a contrast to the one he had already included. Lot 309 of the 19th Century European Paintings Sale of Sotheby’s of 22nd November 1989 was blatantly, clearly and unquestionably a painting by another hand signed T. Ralli Scaramanga, something that Theodore Ralli never did with any painting of his. That was the reason the expert had rejected my property. His interests and loyalty lay with that other vendor, not with myself or with his employers.
I was in a rage. I was like a lion let loose, ready to tear into pieces the man who had caused me so much aggravation and heartache four months earlier. Intentionally! Yes, intentionally and knowingly! That was unforgivable, that was unprofessional. It was an outrage and I was out for revenge. The professional expert had intentionally condemned my property. Rare but possible! My mission was to disgrace him to his superiors and have him fired! He was a rogue expert and Sotheby’s were unaware of all the events. Management had trusted the man but was he trustworthy? Sellers and buyers trusted him, but was he to be trusted? No, he was not and I knew that. I had experienced it. He did not belong in an auction house where ‘trust’ and ‘honesty’ has been the cornerstone of their business and success.
Nothing could have stopped me! I sat down immediately and wrote a letter to Sotheby’s demanding the immediate withdrawal of Lot 309, the oil painting catalogued as by Theodore Jacques Ralli in the sale of 22nd November, because it was a fake and not by the hand of Theodore Ralli. Furthermore, I complained how such a painting came to be included in such an important sale by the experts in charge. I did not mention my own property with Christie’s nor the actions of their expert related to that Ralli. Not yet! I needed the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place. The sale at Christie’s! If my painting sold well and over £10,000, then I would conclude the last part of my revenge.
The painting was withdrawn from the sale at Sotheby’s, but I never received a letter of acknowledgement nor thanks for letting the auction know. Understandable, I would think! How could they accept such a serious mistake by one of their experts? Impossible and inconceivable! How could they accept dishonesty by the protégé of the then CEO of Sotheby’s?
My serious complaint and direct attack on the expert was not to be launched until the sale of Ralli at Christie’s took place. He surely chose the wrong person to play his games against and everything now was turned against him. Nobody is invincible and to me he was an easy target now! But the last act was still to be played!
NEXT WEEK BLOG ENTRY WILL FOLLOW WITH THE SALE OF THE RALLI AT CHRISTIES