Chapter VI Greek Art – “You Wish You Knew What You Sold Me!”

The sale of the contents of an estate – Thomas Thomopoulos

July 1986, East Sussex England

The investment in Hofmann was a significant event but I was not going to fold my arms and just wait for that sale to come through. I was a very active neophyte with a volcano’s energy to burn and still money to invest.

I referred to the Antiques Gazette earlier and mentioned how invaluable a tool it was in the 1980s and 1990s till the Internet revolutionized the way any business is done including buying and selling art. I was always impatient for the Gazette to come in order to read the new sales reports and ads for future auction sales. It was an anxious wait and very frustrating if it ever arrived late. It became a fellow journeyman in my quest for bargains and profitable investments.

Nothing looked exciting in the early July 1986 issue, except a poor advertisement showing a blurred image of what looked like a classical Greek statue. It was a slow time and midsummer 1986 was anything but busy. I needed no more excuses to drive out of London and see another auction. This one was different and the first of its kind I had ever attended. It was the sale of the contents of a small estate in Sussex. Viewing on one day and sale on the next day was normal and that was the way in those days. It gave me plenty of time for viewing on the first day and then research and preparation for bidding the following day.

Would it be first time lucky once again?

The winding road leading to the estate was not easy to find, but the countryside it drove through was as picturesque as I had ever seen in that part of Sussex. The estate was hidden away off the main road, but the signs finally directed me there. I already knew that the auctioneers of the sale were the same ones where I had made my first auction purchases three years earlier with my friend. The amiable auctioneer had remarked jokingly and somewhat concerned then, “I hope you knew what you bought chaps,” simply because we had literally bought junk of no significant value or interest.

Never one to forget the well-meant comment, I plugged on and worked hard. I was laughed at and probably with good reason. He was joking of course, but nevertheless I knew he was right. I was an amateur and so was my friend. Being ignorant, I bought everything and anything one might imagine with no plan, no knowledge and no vision. Needless to say, everything was cheap and unimportant. However, his honest remark and concern stuck in my mind. I wanted to pay him back with the same token and currency one day, but how?

Between 1983 and 1986 I had accumulated knowledge and experience in fine art by trading worldwide and reading avidly everything related to auctions, artists’ prices, trends and fashionable artists. Still, I was not good enough compared with the big investors in the trade as shown by the lesson Mr Green had taught me at Sotheby’s a couple of months earlier. However, specializing in art and especially art from 1850 onwards, I felt gave me an edge, even as early as 1986, when compared with the country auctioneers. They knew a little about everything but nearly nothing in depth and especially about fine art, which requires in depth knowledge of artists’ work and their current auction value. Certainly I knew a lot more about modern and contemporary art as well as Greek art, even though few if any were the pieces I had invested in that area at that time. That was to change for good and forever as far as Greek art was concerned soon after that sale in Sussex.

The sales of the contents of whole estates and country houses offer opportunities to buy fresh on the market items. If not well advertised and attended, they might offer bargain opportunities.

The estate, whose contents were for sale, apparently belonged to a Greek man from Asia Minor, as I later found out from the auctioneers. He was a ship-owner early in the century, but he had no immediate family and his nephews and nieces were selling his estate. That was the perfect scenario for me – it offered possibilities for a bargain. Who would know anything about Greek art in this remote corner of Sussex, if indeed this ex-patriot had collected or bought anything Greek? Were my Greek origins, upbringing and education going to help me in art?

There was nothing impressive about the outside of the house to start with. It was slightly small but had stables to the front, gallops at the back and extensive land. There were a couple of signs that the owners might have been Greek but nothing conclusive. The catalogue mentioned nothing about the deceased owner and his ancestry.

The main entrance led almost immediately to a large room, the main sitting/drawing room containing furniture, large tables, sculptures and paintings on the walls. The paintings were what drew me primarily. Two or three looked interesting and from the distance I guessed who the artist might be. Before I made my way to the walls to examine them more closely, I simultaneously spotted an impressive piece of sculpture in one corner, then another, then a third and a fourth all standing on grandiose pedestals in different corners. They were all identical in colour. The nearest one was inscribed in big Greek letters, ‘Thomas Thomopoulos’.

Who was Thomas Thomopoulos? I had no idea. I walked to the next one, then the next one and the next one. All four were inscribed in Greek ‘Thomas Thomopoulos’. I stopped to breathe and take in the quality and subject matter of these magnificent sculptures. They were absolutely wonderful, coloured marble sculptures by a very skilful artist, whoever he was.

Recovering from the shock of these magnificent sculptures, I turned to the walls to see the paintings and in particular the ones I thought I recognised. It took me a split second to know who the artist was. Yes, I knew the artist well, I was sure of it. The catalogue said, “signed in Chinese”, and I am not exaggerating, it is the honest truth, but to me, it was Greek, clear, calligraphic Greek, ‘Giallinas’. The Giallinas’ watercolours were the best I had seen up to that moment and perhaps even to this day. They were of superb quality, wonderful subjects and in great condition. I was spellbound. They depicted a magnificent view of Pontikonissi and Vlaherna in Corfu, a wonderful Venetian View, and a Farmer With Oxen Tilling His Land.

I needed fresh air, I needed to think and I needed to gather my wits about me. The seven pieces were within my reach, if they remained at their estimates, but that was impossible, I reasoned. If any other Greeks were at the sale or saw the advertisement, the prices would climb high, very high. However, if Greeks had not spotted the sale there might be a chance, as Giallinas signed in Greek was rare and not immediately recognizable to English dealers familiar with the artist. I needed Luck, Great Luck! I would have considered myself extremely lucky to buy two of those pieces, let alone seven!

I knew nothing about the sculptor Thomopoulos, but by the summer of 1986 I could recognize quality in art. The four marble statues were magnificent, of an exquisite colour and subject matter close to the heart of any Greek – Greece and her struggles for freedom.

My thoughts all the way back to London were about money and how I might buy just one watercolour and one sculpture. I had to be realistic with my chances, even though I knew that miraculous things could happen in auction rooms.

Back home and the encyclopedia of Greek Art revealed a great picture of Thomopoulos the sculptor, a professor of art at Athens School of Art and a great artist in his own right. There were no auction sales but I needed none. Over the last three years my eye and ability to judge art and see value in art had developed enormously. However, even without that, the superb quality was obvious even to an amateur. The sculptures were incredible pieces of art and a tribute to Greek history! I had an evening of research and planning that was followed by a restless night of sweet dreams and nightmares at the estate with the treasures.

It had been impossible to sleep really, impossible to rest; the prospect of bidding, the hope of buying bargains played so much on my mind. Sleepless I was, but I arrived early at the house in East Sussex the following day full of energy and with an unbridled feeling of hope!

I had calculated all my money once and twice to the last penny and it amounted to just about £4000. That was after I had changed banks and obtained an overdraft of twenty thousand pounds with Nat West. How did I manage to end up with £16,000 in the red in such a short time and with so many sales in 1985? How could I be calculating to spend all the remainder of the money and leave myself broke once again?

The truth was that I had become addicted to investing in art. I was obsessed. I was drawn to the high value items, where the profits were high but the stakes were even higher. I had already bought the Hofmann for about £8000 just a month earlier, in addition to investments in several other paintings at £2000-3000 each. The Montezin had already cost £3700. It was a mountain of debt that was worrying me, even though I was a very happy art trader! I was addicted to art but what a wonderful addiction to suffer from – an addiction that earned money!

It was early afternoon on a lovely summer’s day in East Sussex, England. The marquee was packed with local people; no sign of London dealers but most importantly not a single face that I would recognize as Greek. That was a good omen! I did not expect any dealers could read Greek or know anything about Thomopoulos, since I had no idea about him and his work myself. Fingers crossed, prayers said I waited for the sale of the watercolours.

The estimates were £300-500 each. Under normal circumstances one such watercolour was worth about £3000 and perhaps more, due to quality and size. I was hoping to buy just one. If I managed to do that, it would be a dream fulfilled. Hope man! Believe in luck! Why didn’t I have more money? This was when I needed it! That is the question all the time. There is never enough cash! You always need more cash!

By 2:00 pm the watercolours and the statues came up for sale. How it all happened, I am not sure. It all became a dream-like event. After the sale, I confused reality with dreams.

Several dealers, recognizing the quality of the Giallinas but possibly not the Greek calligraphic signature, bid them to £550 each, but in the end they all belonged to me at about £600. One after the other the three Giallinas were knocked down to me. Unexpected! Miracle of miracles! I wish there had been ten of them! No serious competition. I was thrilled to bits. I felt wonderful! However, I had to conceal my happiness and bid on the statues as if nothing had happened earlier. This was an important event, a miracle in progress.

Never betray your intentions or your emotions to others in an auction room. Remember Richard Green and his actions at Sotheby’s, when he bought the Seago? Quiet as a mouse! Great poker player!

The quality of the statues was obvious, the importance was there but was there another Greek in the room? If the Giallinas were not recognized, Thomopoulos will not be recognized either, I reasoned to calm myself down and keep the mounting pressure under control. The four of them together meant a hat trick for me. Were they worth anything more than £500 in the Greek market and in a quick sale? I was wondering about that, but I was also pretty sure of the indisputable quality.

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