Bargain Hunting, Not A Waste of Time


Never Say Never

There were many bargain opportunities over the years but the one I am referring to below was a particular one in the heart of London. Where? Sothebys Bond Street, the biggest auction house in the world then and perhaps today, if Christies allows that. The 1980s offered many bargains as the internet was unheard of and sales were held in all auction mainly for the ones in the know and the art dealers. Should for one reason or another the sale was slow, then the opportunities were plenty enough for all interested parties.

A disastrous sale offers investment opportunities – Ivan Choultse

19th November 1985, Christie’s South Kensington, London

Wilhelm Kuhnert

(German, [1865-1926] Painted mainly wild life in Africa. Collected by major German museums and investors. Auction price range £5,000-80,000)

Anxious to reinvest the proceeds from the October sales, two weeks before the purchase of the Montezin, I had invested £2600 in a 19th century painting by the German artist Wilhelm Kuhnert at Christie’s South Kensington, London. Kuhnert sold between £30,000 – £50,000 for wild life paintings. The Kuhnert I bought was a good size, but it was only a view of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Size matters, but subject matters also! That fact I was aware of, but I felt that the painting, at such a low price, was worth a punt. In those days my stock was about half a dozen good paintings and a few paintings I would categorise today as ‘junk’. Any seriously bad purchase among the good, expensive paintings and I would be in trouble. I was pleased with the purchase, but how good a purchase was this 19th century painting compared to the Impressionists?

Ivan Choultse

(Russian, [1874-1939] Painted snowy winter landscapes and forest views; a very collectable artist whose work has jumped in value due to Russian interest. Auction price range £5,000 – 80,000)

March 1986, Sotheby’s London

I entered the Kuhnert for sale in the Important 19th Century European Paintings Sale at Sotheby’s, London for March 1986, with a reserve of £3,000. I was confident it would sell and when the catalogue arrived I felt sure it would. I had no plans to attend the auction, but studying the catalogue, a painting by Ivan Choultse looked to be a bargain when compared with auction prices in New York.

I researched the painting and I concluded that it was a great investment at the estimate. I phoned a friend advising him about the obvious to me bargain. He refused to listen to me. As a matter of fact I felt he was angry I had told him about the painting and its potential. I hung up and then scolded myself saying, “Perhaps I should go to the auction, and if luck is on my side I will buy the Choultse for myself. Keep your mouth shut and mind your business.”

Mum is the word in this business and indeed in any other business!

Auctions can be very entertaining but also extremely boring and frustrating. Costly when items remain unsold, but hugely profitable when events favour your corner in bad sales. The 19th Century Paintings Sale of March 1986 at Sotheby’s was in two parts, morning and afternoon. Following whole auctions and registering the pulse and strength of the market was important to my investments. Seeing bidders and how many people were bidding on a particular painting and artist helped me to determine the strength of the artist’s worth and popularity. How many bidders and at what level?

Wednesday! The sale started at 10.30am. There were about ten people in the saleroom and by 12.30, the end of the morning session, there were six people left. The auction was an absolute disaster with nearly every other lot left unsold. Of the one hundred and thirty odd paintings in the morning more than 40% were unsold and whatever sold was close to the estimate. Constantine Parthenis, a Greek artist, was an exception selling at £12,000 with an estimate of £4,000-6,000. I registered that fact in bold letters. At the same time it became clear that the Kuhnert would struggle and perhaps the Choultse too.

The afternoon sale continued in the same manner; deserted saleroom, depressing atmosphere and nothing but unsold and unsold art. It was disastrous, as lower value paintings, as a rule, struggle more than higher priced ones during bad sales and bad economic conditions.

The Choultse painting was to be auctioned before the Kuhnert, but by then I was pretty sure of its fate. It was a diabolically bad sale but I was there and more importantly also prepared to take advantage of that rare situation.

Similar image or the same

A downcast auctioneer, Max, called out, “ Choultse, A Snowy Hill.”

The estimate of £800-1200 was rather conservative, in spite of the painting’s fine frame and solid provenance. That was a painting worth £2-3000 in New York, sales figures of similar paintings pointed out clearly. Eight hundred pounds was well within my compass of buying. That was a straightforward business trade. Buy and sell quickly and hopefully double your money.

I was not anxious for once because the room was nearly empty bar half a dozen onlookers. Surely, the Choultse was destined to be mine.

“Six hundred pounds,” the auctioneer called out looking everywhere in the room. The announcement fell on deaf ears and walls. Nobody moved a finger. “Six hundred and twenty pounds,” he continued, bidding against the wall frustrated and flushed.

My hand went up and I added another thirty pounds to £650.

“I have a bid of £650. I have six-fifty. I am selling at six hundred and fifty pounds,” and down came his gavel like manna from heaven. The Choultse was mine at £720 inclusive of all commissions and taxes. It was an easy below estimate sale for Max the auctioneer and a good purchase for myself. I was the lucky buyer and I knew I had made a good month’s salary from it or perhaps more. How did I know? My significant investment in catalogues of 19th century paintings in New York pointed clearly to double or treble my investment. No doubt. Having every result of those sales written down was work that paid me back. Investing in the first Art Sales Index that year was money well invested too.

Was I right in my assessments? More importantly, what happened to the Kuhnert in that same sale? As I predicted, it remained unsold at £2,000 with an estimate of £3,000-4,000. Not a single bid was offered. That was perhaps one of the worst auctions I had ever attended at Sotheby’s. I walked out of the auction with three lessons taken on board:

· Attend auctions and you never know what bargains there might be!

· Watch the Greek market because the Parthenis sale was exceptionally strong in such a subdued sale.

· If you do not sell because a sale is bad, then buy!

Choultse is one of the most sought after Russian artists today and that picture I bought at Sotheby’s in 1986 is worth about £50,000 today. I sold the painting in New York six months later for $4500 dollars, (£3,000) or 400% more, thus making that sale one of the best ones at the time. Could I complain with a 300% net profit achieved within eight months? Most importantly, I had proved that I could trade between the major auctions and across the Atlantic rather successfully.

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