Bargain or Fake Was the Dilemma!!


How Can Anybody Turn a £250.00 Investment Into…

The majority of the investment world are happy to have a return of about 5% annually in any investment they make. If that becomes 8-10%, they are over the moon. In art that policy still applies but also the investment that might turn a few pounds into a huge pot is always a possibility, always a dream and anybody visiting auctions, FLEE Markets, or car boot sales hopes for that miracle to happen!!

Auctions offer miracles and they do that with more frequency at times of economic hardship and depression. The 1990s were hard times for a long time and the opportunities were plenty in many auctions, locally, nationally and internationally.

Read my Blog on Saturday and Sunday to find out how I weathered the storm of 1990s with a few blockbuster investments as I already narrated but the best ones follow soon!!

28th August 2015

Bargain Hunting in Paris while Blindfolded

The early 1990s were a constant battle of survival. Buying cheaply and selling at high percentage profits was the aim. There were no boundaries as far as location was concerned but money was limited and hard to come by. The small amounts made in the early 1990s kept the business going, teaching made life at home comfortable and the restless art investor maintained the enthusiasm and belief in the opportunities existing all over the globe.

A trip in the dark and a £300 gamble – Nicolas Ghika

April 1997, St Germain-en-Laye, Paris – October 1997, Sotheby’s London

The 1990s pointed out clearly two major lessons:

· New York was the place to sell fine art and get returns of about 100-200%

· Greek art returned between 100-400% either at auction or in private sales at exhibitions in London or Athens

There was no reason to change the formula even though it gradually became harder to buy fine art cheaply enough to send to New York. By 1997 too many investors were chasing too few bargains and the competition was stiff. However, that could not be said about Greek art, where it was still possible to buy a small bargain at auction worldwide, as well as privately in Athens.

The small, unimpressive catalogue arrived from Paris and I eagerly started scanning the entries and images of paintings. Was there a bargain? Was there anything Greek? Gounaro, Fassianos, Tsingos, Gaitis, Samios? Was there anything else by artists who had worked in Paris in the twentieth century? It was on the fourth or fifth page that an entry stopped me in my tracks and nearly popped my eyes out!

‘Niclas Ghika’ it read. There was no image, no other information except an enticing, inviting, tantalising 500 euros (£350) estimate for an oil on canvas, so loosely described, that you had no idea what it really was.

Nicolas Hadjikyriacos-Ghika

(Greek, [1906-1994] Top artist of twentieth century Greek art. He is found in top collections in Greece and worldwide. His art is housed in the best museums all over the globe. Auction price £2000-400,000)

Was this a real, genuine Nicolas Hadjikyiacos-Ghika, the famous Greek artist of Modern Greek art, the top Greek artist of the second half of the twentieth century? It was possible as he had lived in Paris for many years and was collected by famous, well-heeled people worldwide. But there was no information, no image, no provenance or literature to start a search. How frustrating and upsetting was that?

It was Thursday and the sale was on the following Sunday, 10th March 1997.

The estimate of 500 – 800 euros was laughable, if indeed the painting was by him. I had already bought two Ghika drawings of much smaller size in 1988 for two thousand pounds each. A painting of Ghika of that size, whatever the quality, was surely worth thousands of pounds and perhaps tens of thousands of pounds. The market indicated an average price of twenty thousand pounds, if size was anything to measure things by. Have in mind that the value of art is determined by:

· Size

· Colouration

· Subject

· Period of execution

· Medium (oil, gauche, watercolour, pencil, print)

· Provenance and literature

· The artist’s name and signature

What was the Paris auction up to? Was it a trap to attract Greek buyers? Was it a synonymity? I could not tell. I could not rest and could not relax! I was floating on my usual dream trip of bargains, profits, investments and art adventures. Who wouldn’t like an adventure of that kind accompanied by very high rewards too?

Art! Stimulating, challenging, inviting, rewarding!

I waited for Saturday morning, the day of viewing. My call was to find out more about the piece. Was the painting signed? What was the colouration like? What was the subject of the painting? I was very familiar with the artist’s work having seen a good number of his paintings in the National Gallery in Athens and at a Ghika exhibition in London at the Royal Academy. I had also seen several of them at auction and in Mr T’s private collection. Furthermore, an acquaintance and relative of the artist had a very good collection of the artist’s work, which I was lucky enough to have seen and admired. I was confident I could say what a Ghika painting should look like.

The phone call to the auction went through quickly and I was lucky the assistant was helpful and not that busy. I needed help, quite a bit of help and somebody who spoke English.

“Can you describe the colours of lot… the Ghika, to me, please?”

“They are pastel colours of green and brown. It is an interesting painting, sir.”

“Is it signed, sir?”

“Yes, it is signed Ghika in the front and also signed on the reverse and titled too. It is a good painting, sir!”

I put the phone down and fell into serious thought for about ten minutes. I had a dilemma to overcome, but in those ten minutes I reasoned and decided firmly. I can get to Paris by train in three hours tomorrow morning. It will cost me £100-150, but it might be my lucky day. If I stay in London, there won’t be another possible Ghika anywhere. Besides, there might be something else to buy in that sale, if the painting turns out not to be a Ghika. I was determined and very focused on buying Greek art, which time and again had rewarded me handsomely in spite of hiccups here and there. In any case, I fancied a bargain hunt in Paris. Why not?

Bargains are everywhere; they only need to be chased and grabbed!

Without much more deliberation, I picked up the phone and made a reservation on Eurostar first class. I might as well travel in style, I thought to myself. With the travelling formalities over I could not wait for the trip to France the following day and the chance to see ‘The Ghika’? I was ready to bid up to £7000, all my bank, as I felt the work was worth double that amount, if genuine. That was roughly what the sales in Athens pointed out and slightly higher, if sold privately.

29th August 2015 continued

Paris auction a joke! You cannot be serious!

My trip to Paris took three hours, but by the time I arrived at the auction house just outside Paris it had gone past 1.00 pm, and it was lunchtime, the French way. Do not ask the French to miss their lunch, especially Sunday lunch! Impossible! It’s an anathema!

Outside the auction house, a semi-classical building in the picturesque suburb of Paris St Germain-en-Laye, I went round and round in circles. Could this be the auction house? It was hermetically closed and everything round it was deserted. No sign of life. No offices to see no doors to knock on. No bells to ring, no phone boxes to call! Was I at the right place or was it a desperate trip and wishful thinking? I had the catalogue, but I doubted everything about it when inspecting the area around the auction. The leafy streets of St Germain-En-Layes looked abandoned; shutters were shut, gates were locked and not a soul to be seen.

I doubted myself, I doubted my sanity and I doubted the catalogue I had at hand! The auction could not be closed with just an hour to go before the sale, I reasoned. My worry was immense, my anxiety huge. I felt dizzy because of the four hours’ trip and my brain was in reverse. Frustration immeasurable, anger increasing, demons of doubt possessing me the closer to two o’clock it got. I walked round the auction address like a madman for the tenth time, waiting for a sign of life, something stirring, something living. Not a soul! No sign of life inside the locked up auction house nor outside it.

Desperation had set in! Going round and round in circles at a faster pace, I felt I was over the edge! It was almost two o’clock when a couple of people arrived and stood outside the auction door. They were holding that flimsy catalogue I had kept checking and re-checking for errors. Thank God, I am at the right place, I breathed in relief! Finally and at 2.10 the doors of the auction house were pushed open from inside. Where were those phantoms? Where had they come from?

Wasting no time, I rushed inside the auction building looking around for paintings inside the huge room. What the hell is going on, I fumed? There were no paintings hanging on the huge expanse of walls, only stacks of them on the floor next to the auctioneer’s rostrum. My heart sank. Such a rush to arrive early was futile and now inside the auction room I could not see the painting I had travelled all the way from London for. It was hugely frustrating. I felt like screaming! Calm down, cool, impatient investor! There was only one option left and that was not so good.

“Can I see lot number…please?” I begged one of the attendants.

“I’m afraid it’s under there, sir. There are about eighty paintings on top of it. We cannot remove them to see just that one. May I suggest you sit in the front row here, and when the painting comes up for sale, have a good look at it?”

I pleaded, but to no avail. I felt like running away in disgust. I felt sick! I felt faint! I needed fresh air. Four hours on trains, all that way from London and I couldn’t even see the painting before it was auctioned! Depressed and with the hope of a Ghika decreasing by the second, I sat in the first row of seats helpless and waited – in fury.

“Sit in the front and wait.” That was a joke, for sure, I mumbled to myself furiously. That was disgraceful! What kind of auction is this? Where have I come to, I wondered? Yes, I did not know this auction house. I did not know how they conducted their business. I did not know whether the painting I was after was a deliberate attempt to attract the Greek bidders. This auction was definitely no Sotheby’s, no Christie’s nor Bonhams. I found out throughout this business that auctions have different systems and ways of doing business and I learned to accept their ways and live by them. That auction was way different to anything I had experienced up to that day.

Having no alternative, feeling as sick as a dog, I sat in the front row hopelessly waiting for the supposed Ghika to be auctioned. It seemed an eternity, but actually it was very quick as the sale was terrible. Paintings were passed over, one after the other, without any bidding. It was one of those dead auctions with only about a dozen buyers present. One exception was a small Greek painting, a minute painting, I might add, by the Greek artist Thanos Tsingos, which sold for 800 euros. I was not interested in Tsingos, a small fish on the day; I was after a much bigger fish.

The sale of that painting convinced me that those buyers would push the estimate of the Ghika picture too and make my day a complete hell. Such a thought sent me into further worry and despair, but I was there and I had to go through the ordeal and suffer! Even bargain hunting entails suffering and heartaches of a high degree. I was hanging from a thread of hope. Simply it was desperation! What else could it be?

Two hundred and fifty euros to you! What a fake!

With very little bidding on earlier lots my turn for action came quickly. Too quickly to be ready!

The Ghika is up for sale and all seems like a dream. The assistant holds it up firmly for bidders to see, but at two metres away I can’t see well. I get up, move two steps forward, try to look for a moment or two, but the auctioneer pays no attention to me. I am an unknown face and name to her. She is in a hurry to finish the auction and get rid of the audience, a runaway train trying to beat the clock and crash unceremoniously into a river or ravine perhaps!

“Five hundred euros for the Ghika,” she asks looking round swiftly. Fortunately for me no hand goes up, no nodding of the head or waving of a catalogue. It happens so quickly, it is like a hundred metres dash. Before I manage to put my hand up, as I’m still trying to sneak a look at the painting, I hear, “two hundred and fifty euros!”

My hand shoots up like a piston not worrying whether I am buying junk or gold. I act on instinct! I am in a dream or rather a nightmare à la French! I am there. I have to bid. Caution for two hundred and fifty euros is silly and stupid now! A fake can be worth that much.

“To you sir!” shouts the triumphant auctioneer, smiling happily and registering my paddle number. The hammer thunders down with a deafening bang, loud enough to raise the dead, and I am the owner of the questionable Ghika. Auctioneer, assistants and the whole room look happy and smile coyly. Are they laughing at me? Stupid man! Yes, I can still see the sneers. Whoops! Caught, you clever expert in Greek art!

I had bought the fake Ghika! What else could it be at two hundred and fifty euros! O là là! I couldn’t believe what had happened, everything in split seconds. It was like lightning and the thunderbolt had hit me. I was paralysed, numb and floating dizzy. I didn’t know what to make of it. I had bought something by 50% less than the original estimate, even though by accident. I should have been pleased, but I was unhappy! Disappointed! Hugely worried! Everything seemed too shady and unprofessional. Fake, I whispered! Fake! I sank in my chair! Crooked business, I whispered! Damn it! Blast it! The French have caught me once again!

It can’t be a Ghika! Impossible under the circumstances!

I had gambled 300 euros (22.5% commission included) and was still in the dark. I had bought something I hadn’t seen really. Whilst they wrapped the painting at the collection area I had a momentary closer look and my spirits lifted a little. It seemed a strange painting, but fine as far as quality was concerned. However, that was a very quick look, a very inconclusive glance by a very biased new owner.

I did not even look at the Sergei Ponomarew pointillist painting I had paid another three hundred euros for. I was speculating in art. I was an addict and going to Paris and returning empty handed was not on the cards. Yes, I had an addiction to punting on art, but I knew this was backed up by knowledge and expertise acquired over time and hard work. How many others could say the same?

Spirits up on closer inspection

By 11.00pm I was back home in London exhausted, disappointed and more than sure that the painting was a fake. Did I have to gamble five hundred pounds on two paintings at a time when money was so difficult to make? Did I have to travel to Paris and spend another two hundred pounds on travel costs? I was angry with myself, with my impetuosity and adventurous behaviour. Yet, those were the traits that had led me into the art world and the best investments I had ever made.

I went to bed hoping for a miracle, but do miracles happen in our world and nowadays? I am a bad sleeper, and as you can imagine, I slept very little. Extremely worried about the new addition to my stock, I got up and rushed downstairs to the painting at six in the morning. I quickly slashed the wrappings of the packet Ghika had spent the night in. The second set of wrappings came off and I stood, about a metre or two away, staring hard for the first time really at the puzzle called ‘Niclas Ghika’.

I could not make out the subject yet, but I liked what I saw. It was a clever composition with an excellent application of paints in olive greens and soft browns that looked like the hand of Ghika. I took the painting in my trembling hands and had a closer, longer look. The composition was complex, figurative and imaginary. The signature was typical of the artist and, as far as I could say, authentic and correct. Everything appeared genuine and the general feel of the work seemed right, but was it really? Parthenis felt genuine some seven years earlier but …

Appearances can be deceptive. I was not an expert on the artist to declare it genuine at first glance and examination. I was still an amateur with good knowledge of Greek art, but no expert in any artist.

Turning the painting round to the reverse for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised and relieved to see the other Ghika signature, as good as the first one at the front, and the title of the work, ‘Meditation Sur Le Vide’. The canvas was around forty years old and English, a significant fact as Ghika had lived in London at that time. The style of the work was of the late 1960s early 1970s when Ghika had lived and worked in London. I stared at the back of the painting for a few minutes feeling happier. I turned it round to the front and did the same for even longer. Time and again I repeated the examination; looked, touched and felt the brushwork and paint texture. I had a good feel of the composition, the colours, the canvas and the signatures.

I exhausted myself examining the canvas for about forty minutes. After such concentration, anxiety and worrying thoughts, I felt as if I had worked for months! It was mental and emotional labour of the highest order. How many times had I been through the same ordeal? How many times have I been through the fake or genuine dilemma?

The signs at the front of the painting were positive, so too were the ones at the back. Slowly and gradually I formed a view, a tentative view, about the canvas signed Ghika. I whispered to myself, not daring to say it out loud.

“This painting seems right. It’s a genuine Ghika. It’s a gem, but what about APEL?” (Authenticity, Provenance, Exhibitions, Literature)

Was it really a genuine Ghika painting or was I dreaming in my desperation of buying something worth only a few pounds as a fake rather than a genuine one worth 15-20,000 pounds? Be back tomorrow with the rest of the story!!

30th August 2015

“This painting seems right. It’s a genuine Ghika. It’s a gem, but what about APEL?” (Authenticity, Provenance, Exhibitions, Literature)

Who am I to authenticate such a painting? Who will listen to me? There are many experts and individuals ready to discredit a painting, especially one owned by a small investor/collector. Are there still haughty upper-middle class experts who judge you on appearances rather than on what you own? Bet your last penny on it! If you are Lord or Lady so and so, the famous so and so, this or that celebrity, then everything becomes easy and simple. Everything, nearly everything, is genuine. If you are nobody, then possibly everything you own is a fake! I had felt it many a time! I had seen it many a time! I had experienced such bias personally, unfortunately! “Where did you get the Seago from? Who are you?” interrogated the expert in 1986. Meaning, who are you to own such a painting? Have you stolen it? Are you fabricating a story? Yes, it is still happening. That is the attitude at the major auctions, readers, even though it is never acknowledged!

That is the attitude, and so do not trust what you hear from just one expert, especially if it goes against what you know and feel yourself. Check and re-check with two or three experts the same item. You will be surprised at the variety of opinion, even by the same experts at different times! A few stories are included in these memoirs to illustrate this fact and they are only a sample.

However, in spite of my complaint above, auctions are right to be wary and right to check the credentials of vendors, especially when they are unknown, first time sellers. But what if you are a well-known vendor/collector at the major auction houses, like myself? Well this can still happen, so I was not going to give any so-called expert at any auction house in 1997 the opportunity and satisfaction to humiliate me. Experience is the best teacher and that had already taught me that:

· The opinion of ‘experts’ at auctions should be taken with a pinch of salt and at times ignored and distrusted completely, especially when what they say goes against what you know about the art in your possession. Their primary role is to make money for the auctions, not to authenticate paintings they are possibly not qualified for. They are just brokers, not experts in depth. Yes, on most occasions they are correct, but at times they have no clue and as ‘experts’ can dismiss you and me instantly.

· Even receptionists take on the role of experts at times! I have seen them sending away people with good art. Do not listen to them and insist on seeing an expert when visiting an auction for an opinion!

No exaggeration! It is a fact, it happens. It’s happening today! So watch out!

Authenticating a work of art

Nicolas Hadjikyriacos-Ghika is possibly the best painter Greece has produced in the twentieth century after Parthenis. He is a giant in Greek and international art and as such a museum in his name was established in Athens in the early 1990s. My next move with regards to authenticating the Ghika was a no brainer. Ask the Ghika Museum to confirm the painting’s authenticity.

May 1997

I am in Athens looking to add to my collection of contemporary artists but more importantly to consult the Ghika Museum about the painting I bought in Paris. Athens is a vast metropolis of six million people, but fortunately the Ghika Museum is in the centre of the city and about twenty minutes’ walk from my base. The walk to the museum is pleasant, but much of the joy of being in Athens is taken away by anxiety and worries about the painting and the potential change it might bring to my finances. Two months after its purchase my belief in the painting had grown stronger and stronger. My experience, the data and photos of other paintings by the artist convinced me that the painting in my hands was a genuine, original Ghika.

Like many collectors and investors I had managed to persuade myself that I was in possession of the genuine article. It was a gem, a two hundred carat diamond, beautiful and by the master himself, even though it had cost less than three hundred pounds!

If the museum finds the painting to be a fake, I will be devastated, I am thinking. It will be the end of a magnificent dream and my belief that I am an expert Greek art.

With many such thoughts occupying my mind, soon enough I am at the museum briskly climbing the stairs to the reception area. The pandemonium called central Athens is locked outside. It is all quiet and a little eerie inside the museum. I expected something bigger. I expected noisy visitors, but this is a new museum and still in its infancy.

I look at a few of the exhibits and then make my way purposefully to the reception at the end of the main exhibition room. Once I hand over the photos and make my request, the receptionist tells me to return that afternoon for an answer to my inquiry. Anxiety prolonged, agony mounting, I had a few more hours to wait for the verdict of ‘yes’ or ‘no’, genuine or copy!

Athens had been a hunting ground for me for new artists and bargains since 1988. I was a primary art buyer from studios and my connections with several artists were improving year after year. The long-term plan by 1997 was to collect about three to four hundred paintings of known artists, who were on the fringe of becoming more valuable and more recognised. It was not easy but very possible to achieve in the long run. Patience is of the essence in collecting and especially when collecting artists with a rather low profile and price tag.

I was looking for underrated, talented artists!

It was not hard to spend a few hours looking into the stock of two galleries packed with fine art. Was there an artist of interest meeting my strict criteria of quality and price? Wandering in downtown Athens is more than rewarding. The city is an open museum of the ancient and modern, but in spite of all those magnificent attractions, my mind was on the Ghika and the verdict of the museum. Its opinion would be final and there was no way I could argue against that. I believed the painting to be genuine, but my opinion was of no consequence. I was a trader wishing the painting to be a Ghika for monetary gain. What a terrible thought and attitude to art! However, it was not just about money.

· It was justification of a belief.

· It was a challenge to prove to myself that I was not an amateur any more.

· Proving this was important for my ego, my confidence and my business.

By four in the afternoon and just five hours after my first visit, I was once again at the reception of the Ghika Museum. I was tired and in a way terrified. There was no way I could prepare myself for a disappointing answer. I wanted and needed a positive response. With all these thoughts swirling around in my head the receptionist appeared all of a sudden. He knew about the whole issue, but I did not expect an answer there and then from him.

“Yes, sir! The Ghika inquiry!” Calm and cool, he took a few seconds taking a deep breath in.

“Yes, the work is by Ghika. It is in the archives of the artist and it belonged to a doctor Koriat from Paris.”

I stood motionless for a minute or two. It was too good to believe, but really, I was expecting nothing less. The news was tremendous. Flying down the stairs of the museum, I entered the noisy Panepistimiou Street in central Athens with wings to fly. My imagination had the capacity to launch me to the stars. I felt twenty once again. I was just fifty, but I felt as young as a teenager. My lottery ticket had come up finally.

The Ghika was a gift from the gods! Thank you lucky stars! I had pulled the strings and made things happen and luck had finally put the last touches to a glorious investment. I was sure the Ghika was a £15-20,000 painting and it had cost me just £300. What a lift of spirits, what an injection of hope! I was so upbeat. The small gamble had paid off. Luck was with me once again, as it has always been. Yes, luck had played a major role, but I too had moved my little finger to make things happen.

No luck! No business!

No speculation! No accumulation!

No pain! No gain!

Consignment – a smooth passage? Never!

The lessons of the failed sales at Christie’s London in 1993 were still fresh in my memory, so too was the memorable Ralli sale in Athens in 1995. The Greek market was definitely stronger in Athens and as a good investor I had to consider selling the Ghika in the Greek capital. Therefore, before returning to London, a visit to Christie’s Athens was essential. They were steadily establishing a robust Greek Art market so no harm in asking for their opinion and perhaps selling there where the best buyers seemed to compete against each other.

I slept on the idea and early the following day I made my way to Christie’s. I didn’t have an appointment, always advisable especially when consigning important art, but I was hoping the main expert might be in for an impromptu chat and opinion on the Ghika painting. She knew the artist’s work well and had already sold enough works by Ghika to know the prices achieved inside out. It was common knowledge anyway.

The omens were very good, beautiful weather, nearly summer, perfect conditions to set one in a good mood and raise hopes and expectations. It was about eleven when I arrived at Christie’s. The lady in charge was not in her office and I lingered about looking at catalogues and admiring the work and new offices Christie’s had created. Quite an improvement from 1992/3! Magnificent offices, really impressive!

I was about to leave the premises, when the expert strutted into the offices. There was an air of superiority about her, which I detested the moment I saw it in anybody whoever they were and whatever they represented. From receptionist to expert overnight! It’s a farce, isn’t it, I thought to myself! Nevertheless, she was the one person pulling the strings in Athens and making the Greek art market stronger year after year. I gave her credit and respect for that. Surely, she was doing some good things for Greek art.

“Ms…I have something to show you, if you have a minute.”

“What is it?” was her rather abrupt answer. She was in a bad mood. Obviously! Without telling her what it was, I showed her a good quality photo of the Ghika painting.

“What’s this?” she inquired rather defensively, bothered by my presence and inquiry. That felt ominous.

“Do you recognise this?” I asked politely.

“No, what is it?” she asked impatiently.

“It’s a Ghika.”

“Ghika?” she asked, in disbelief.

“Yes, it’s a Ghika, an oil painting of 65×55 cm. What do you think it might be worth?”

“Oh, two and a half million, three million,” she responded coldly, which was roughly about £5-7000.

“Is that all?” I asked, raising the level of my voice, expecting a higher quote and more respect for the piece and the artist.

“Yes,” was her final, indifferent answer as she turned around and left me seething with anger. Before she had even seen the work or inquired anything about it, she had the audacity to quote an estimate that was not even close to the results watercolours by Ghika had achieved earlier in the year at her own auctions. She was exacting revenge because I was the Greek dealer in London pushing Greek art sales in the British capital through Christie’s and Sotheby’s. She disappeared quickly to her office and I? I was disgusted with such attitude, such manners and treatment. Her valuation was laughable, but that was her opinion. Fair enough! However, her manner was loathsome. Shocking treatment of a client, no matter who the client was!

“How on earth could Christie’s have a person like her running their operation in an upcoming market?” I asked myself angrily. “Where was Christie’s being led to by a person like her? Did I help in putting this person in that position? Stupid man! She is grateful for that, can’t you see!” That was the last time I ever set eyes on her. My serious complaint fell on deaf ears. However, such behaviour and attitude plus other issues led to the closure of Christie’s Athens operations in 1999-2000.

The Ghika painting was a very good oil painting and my experiences with it deserve some conclusions at his point:

· Get the opinion of the best authority on an artist. Any museum devoted to the work of an artist is the best authority in authenticating paintings of that artist. The next best are National Galleries and their experts. Experts on individual artists ought to be respected too.

· Auction experts make valuation mistakes, which at times are very serious!

· Never accept an opinion that does not satisfy you! You might be the best expert on your art possessions after all.

The Ghika sale – recognition of a master’s work

Summer was approaching fast and I had to make plans for the autumn sales, which were always planned three to six months in advance. The Ghika was the major painting for that autumn, if I wanted a good sum of money in my account. My bank was not sympathetic to my business any more. The manager had been swept aside and now it was a computer that judged my business and its needs. I was not happy with that. I needed a personal banker who understood what I needed and when I needed it.

Unfortunately, art was not and is not recognized as assets by English banks (unlike banks in the USA). That fact together with the opinion of a computer was not helpful to my business. In order to change banks, I had to show a healthy balance sheet and plenty of good stock with potential.

Thus, without much procrastination, without even much thought for the future but only present, pressing financial needs, I reluctantly consigned the Ghika with Sotheby’s Impressionist Department. Yes, it was not Athens, but Sotheby’s London was good enough for me. I set my reserve at £10,000 without a problem (four million drachmas plus) and hoped for the best. In an ideal world the painting was worth about £20,000 in 1997.

The Impressionist Department at Sotheby’s was happy to include the painting in their sale of October 1997. They had sold works by Ghika before and they could also see the sales in Athens. Only Christie’s expert in Athens could not see her own sales’ results and that was possibly because I owned the painting. No expert likes everybody and on many occasions I found myself on the receiving end. No such issue with Sotheby’s Impressionist experts. However, at consignment time I trusted Sotheby’s too much. I did not discuss terms of sale, something I should have done. I made serious mistakes that could have been avoided had I raised them and sorted them out before the sale. What issues am I talking about?

· Position of the painting in the catalogue. When the Ghika was catalogued, it was literally placed last in the sale, lot 390 out of 402.

· The illustration was poor and it paid no tribute to the painting.

· Worst of all was the terrible location the painting had been placed for viewing. It was hung in a dark corner, literally hidden and away from the light.

Extremely upset, I complained vigorously, but it was too late to do anything about any of these issues. However, the best thing I did before consignment was to fit a custom-made frame on the painting. The frame gave the painting a serious lift and regardless of where the Ghika was hidden it still shone! It was such a clever painting with so much power and meaning that, regardless of the pre-sale negatives, I was still optimistic of a good result.

Teaching, full-time teaching, took priority. I made the decision to stay away from the sale and hoped for the best. Teaching kept the art enterprise alive during the terrible years of the 1990s and I was grateful to serve it. On the day of the sale, body and soul, thoughts and hopes were in the saleroom, in spite of my presence at school. How much will the Ghika sell? Will it remain unsold? “Not sold”, was the worst phrase you could hear when asking for a result. I reasoned with myself and calmed myself down, “this is a Ghika!”

Five o’clock in the afternoon. The sale is over. I pluck up courage to call Sotheby’s and wait for the call to go through. It seems an eternity. Seconds seem hours, then I recognise the voice of the expert in charge.

“Mr Constant, we did very well for you. Ghika, lot 390 sold for £14,000.” This totalled about £17,000 including commissions, for the buyer. I whispered a faint thank you and punched the air jumping up and down.

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” I screamed running round the room. “Thank you God!” I was out of the woods! The dream was on again and I was a free man to go crazy once again. Incurable collector and investor! Artoholic!

The Ghika had been a small gamble that came up trumps, sparing me a lot of money problems and giving me financial freedom to pursue my plans. The £300 investment in Paris had returned me nearly £13,000 net. It was the best result I had ever had in percentage terms from any single investment in an important painting; an astronomical 4500% profit in just seven months. Thank you Greek art.

Art was the emperor of all investments and Greek art was the king of the times. Short, sharp and magnificently rewarding! Lessons learned and followed:

· Never be afraid to take small risks in business!

· Gambles might backfire, but a small investment risk, like the Ghika once in a while, would not damage any business or investor’s pocket irreparably.

Will I be lucky enough to buy another Ghika ever? Who knows? Perhaps! I have to be optimistic, I have to work hard and I have to hope that lady luck will smile on me once again.

This experience with the Ghika led me to consider this question. Is a painting worth as much as it sells? Many experts believe and state that: “a work of art is worth what someone is willing to pay for it.” The Ghika story disproves this. The painting sold for next to nothing at one auction because they didn’t know its true worth and the second auction realized its actual market value in a proper sale.

However, the following story affirms the above statement.

December 1997. Gorringes auctions had their quarterly sale. The painting that caught my eye was a fairly large well-painted canvas of a mother and child. It was an attractive image, but the artist was unknown to everyone including myself. However, I thought it was such a beautiful, emotive painting that I bought it paying just forty-four pounds – a ridiculously low sum of money for a really beautiful painting!

On a visit to a collector’s house a year later, I took along a collection of eight Greek paintings valued at about £1500 pounds each and also included the painting purchased at Gorringes. Things turned out to be the exact opposite of what I expected. All the Greek paintings seemed poor to my clients compared to the Italian painting with Mother and Child. It became obvious to me that this was the painting the lady of the house was going to buy. My price and estimate for it was £1000, but I let it go for £800 as a gesture of good will to old clients. Was that a forty-four pounds painting or an eight hundred pounds one?

It is important to discuss such questions as the aim of the book is not just to narrate experiences but also to help anyone interested in art investment, forming a collection, or buying and selling a work of art.

The art business not only involves knowledge of artists and their price brackets, but also taste and aesthetic appreciation of art. In all the years I have been involved in art, my taste developed, my eye matured and any piece of art that spoke of value for money I bought, regardless of artist. That policy never failed me and I am sure it will stand me in good stead for the future.

Name and signature on a piece of art matters but content matters too!

Chasing the bargain from one country to another paid dividends. Major dividends of something like 4600% in just eight months. Auctions did offer great opportunities and do still today!!

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