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Be at Auction, Grab The Bargains!!


Being Present, You Have First Choice and First Option!

Being present at auction has always been a pleasure, a happy time and in certain cases a very profitable one too. The years of recession in 1990s hit all of us hard but there was still hope here and there and the hard working was rewarded handsomely at times.

The experience of going to France to buy the Ghika is in the diary now for all to revisit and re-read. That was in France with an artist the auctioneers failed to catalogue correctly but what happened at Sotheby’s when the Ralli painting failed to sell in 1997?

Read my blog tomorrow!!

Are there still bargains at auctions like Sothebys and Christies?

5th September 2015

The Turn

The excessive pain from the recession of the 1990s hit my business and cash flow hard. The recession became a depression for me as I made serious investment mistakes on top. The combination of recession, bad investments and other losses set me back a few years and nearly bankrupted me. Resilience is one part of my character. Perseverance is another. Being stubborn in the face of adversity might be considered foolhardy, but in my case I was hoping it would turn out for the best. I was not going to give up the work of the last ten years and a collection of considerable value. It was out of character. It was not my person and so gathering myself together I changed direction. I invested in less expensive art, then Greek art and kept hoping for the best. Teaching kept the boat afloat until better days arrived.

Doing two jobs after 1992 was a way of life and a happy, successful one too!

The Greek market gradually became a major part of my business. Being in it from the start, I hoped it would gather more speed and more financial might to reward my foresight and my belief in the art of a small nation.

It is always advisable to keep an eye on emerging markets and invest in them before the crowds arrive. Reading the future hot markets, future trends and likes and dislikes are an essential part of the art business.

Visiting auctions, viewing sales and being well in touch with the art auction scene continued to be a positive and rewarding practice for me. However, I didn’t visit auctions in the country as often as before – teaching did not allow that, and so London was the auction theatre for me. It was difficult to pick a bargain in the centre of the art world, but at the level of £500-5,000 it had been proved possible. I never lost hope that the odd sleeper was about, that the odd work of art might sell much lower than its market value for millions of reasons, and so I carried on with the strategy of the early 1990s.

After sale bidding makes sense – Ralli’s ‘Odalisque’

15th May 1995, Sotheby’s London – 4th December 1995, Christie’s Athens

The 19th Century European Paintings Sale at Sotheby’s in May 1995 was a major affair in London. I had limited resources to buy, but I knew that on a bad day I could pick up a very good value painting. The Ralli in the sale was of good quality, but I could not afford to pay six thousand pounds for it as its estimate in the catalogue suggested. Being a pragmatist and a realist about the cash available and possible profits, I decided to stay away from the sale.

Sotheby’s was not the best venue for selling a Ralli at that time, as Christie’s had cornered the market with their Greek sales in Athens. This was a fact proven through sales, and so I hoped for an unsold situation, which on a bad day was possible. In the past I had bought a number of paintings with after-sale bids and these had proved to be shrewd investments.

Late that afternoon something told me, something pushed me at the last minute to make my way to Sotheby’s. I literally walked into the saleroom at about 4.00pm, just in time to see that the Ralli work had attracted no bids. I knew that the estimate was steep and that the painting would struggle to sell, so I was delighted when that happened! How auspicious was that! That failure was interesting and my experience told me that:

· Sotheby’s did not have Ralli collectors at that time as opposed to Christie’s

· Christie’s and Mihalarias in Athens were achieving better results for Greek art

Auctions do better for certain artists and worse for others. This has been proven time and again so collectors / investors have to take this into account when they are buying or selling.

I had already seen another Ralli remaining unsold at Sotheby’s and I had been the beneficiary. Such in-depth knowledge was worth its weight in gold! The unsold Ralli became my target immediately. Patience is a virtue and especially so when investing in art. I sat patiently in the saleroom, registering prices and impressions of sold and unsold paintings. I had already hatched a plan, which was simple, plain simple – deliver my written after-sale bid straight away and hope that nobody beat me to it!

As soon as the sale was over, I approached the auctioneer and made an after-sale bid to the total of £3000. Yes, £3000 inclusive of commissions and taxes. A bit of an insult, but in business all is acceptable and reasonable too.

‘The Odalisque’ was pretty but not beautiful, as I wished it to be, thus my lower than usual low bid. I was cautiously optimistic, but in all honesty only desperate owners would have sold at that price. I was bargain hunting. Chasing bargains was an essential part of the business and it was that policy that had kept everything going. Bargains in art! I was the connoisseur, wasn’t I? I used knowledge others did not have and turned that advantage into money.

Unexpectedly, or rather as I had hoped, the phone rang soon after I arrived home. It was Sotheby’s.

“Mr Constant. Your bid of three thousand for the Ralli was accepted and the Ralli is yours.”

I remained still for a few moments. The facts sank in and then I yelled, “Yes! Finally! Yes, a real bargain! Thank God!”

I was ecstatic! I was so happy that finally a good painting had come my way at my own price. Great work! Had I been shrewd or lucky? To be sold the Ralli at three thousand pounds, three thousand pounds total had to be pure luck. It was absolutely, marvellously unbelievable. This Ralli painting might be the start of a much awaited and hoped for rally after the terrible run of five years plus. There was hope, reasonable hope to collect a substantial sum from the sale of just one painting.

I had already learned from earlier after-sale bids that:

· A low bid is never a bad idea

· An after-sale bid enables the bidder to buy at his/her own level

· Never say never to such opportunities regardless of a seemingly ridiculously, low bid

The Ralli was destined for Christie’s Athens who had proven successful with their sales of Greek art in the Greek capital. I estimated the painting to be worth about eight thousand pounds and so all of a sudden another Ralli became the cornerstone of a comeback for me. I had already earmarked a small marine Tsingos painting for Christie’s December sale. One more work by Lembessis, unsold at Christie’s London in 1993, was already in Athens consigned by a friend on my behalf, and so a personal visit and negotiation with Christie’s Athens was essential.

It was not just survival but revival too! By the end of July 1995 I was in Athens already negotiating a private sale of Ralli’s Odalisque.

6th September 2015

“I can sell the Ralli.” A near catastrophe!

Six years of close co-operation was enough for me to trust Mr T and vice versa. On hearing about the Ralli he assured me that he had a buyer.

“Let me sell it for you. I can sell easily for ten thousand pounds.”

“Ok, you have one week to sell as I have a potential buyer too,” I made clear to him.

The week was over. My expectations for a sale were dashed and so I visited Mr T at his house to collect the painting.

“Leave it with me”, he pleaded. “I will sell it before the Christie’s sale, and if I don’t, I’ll consign it for you for the December auction.”

I collected the painting and tried to sell privately. It was summer and it was no use. I left the painting with my agent who consigned it with Christie’s for the Greek sale of that December.

By October 1995 Mr T passed away unexpectedly. Had I left the Ralli with him that summer I would have been involved in an ownership battle with his inheritors who were already warring between themselves about the huge art collection he had left behind. I avoided a calamity of immense proportions, which taught me a very serious lesson!

Never loan or give for sale anything without the necessary paperwork. I trusted Mr T but without any documents of sale agreement, I would have been out of pocket for sure and in a legal battle with his inheritors.

The consignment of the Ralli plus the Tsingos at Christie’s Athens went smoothly. The lady in charge liked the Ralli and the estimate was actually £7-10,000. It was a high estimate, but for the Greek collectors it was an encouragement to buy rather than stay away; buyers in Greek art sales used to be mainly private individuals, as opposed to auctions in London, where about 70% of lots sold went to dealers.

The December sale in Athens was a major affair for Athenian art lovers. Major names were included in the sale and the Ralli looked splendid, although slightly small. The sale was extremely important for me financially. If it was good I could carry on with my art business, if bad I was in financial trouble again!

· Being at the top of my overdraft limit was usual for me. It is not a practice I would advise anybody to follow.

· Using credit cards to finance purchases should be avoided. It doesn’t pay! It leads to serious problems and financial headaches!

Christie’s Greek Sale in December 1995 was crucial. I took the decision to attend the sale on which so much depended. I also had a couple of small sales to make there and as an added bonus weekends in Athens were always enjoyable and entertaining.

Athens, 4th December 1995

Athens to the rescue! Frenetic Bidding on the Ralli

Nervous, apprehensive and full of expectation I made my way to the auction and sat together with a good Athenian collector who had already bought two small paintings from me that very day. The saleroom was packed to the rafters, usually a sign of a successful sale. I estimated about eight hundred people in the room. Was that New York, or Paris or what?

The noise was interestingly loud, the audience anxious for the event to start and so the shaky auctioneer, the young Greek female expert of Christie’s stepped onto to the rostrum. She looked nervous, but also in control and handled things well. From the first few lots I could work out that the sale was going to be successful. However that didn’t stop my anxiety from rising by the time lot 40, the Ralli, came up for sale. Raising funds, surviving for another day was paramount. Sitting on the edge of my chair with sweaty hands and usual fast heartbeat on such occasions, I looked around me anxiously. Silence! Unusual silence!

The bidding started. No time to dwell on the precarious position I was in. I had the ammunition to come out of the crisis but would the Athenians like the goods I had brought to them from Europe? The hands were up, the bids flew in and before I even realized what had happened the Ralli painting had reached the reserve of seven thousand pounds; hands were still fighting each other at five hundred pound intervals. Three million five hundred thousand drachmas was passed and soon enough ‘The Odalisque’was at four million drachmas or ten thousand pounds. The young auctioneer turned left and right at 4,200,000 and then 4,500,000 and finally at 4,800,000 drachmas the gavel came down. Incredible!!!

What a triumph! Unexpected and expected at the same time! Art was beautiful and more so when the money from such small investments as the Ralli became seriously important. Was that a nine thousand pounds profit? Wasn’t that 300% return in eight months? Maths at work, quick! How much was that in sterling pounds? £13,500 and I looked at Lord Poltimore, who was smiling happily supervising the event. I was saved. An unexpected investment in the shape of an after-sale bid had become the boat of salvation and the beginning of a comeback. I had the money to support the business, to invest further and carry on with my dream.

Once again another painting of Ralli promised to turn the struggles of survival in the early 1990s to profit making on a higher scale. Some artists are lucky for some and Ralli proved to be a goldmine for me! There is no way I can describe my relief, my happiness and joy on that day. Nearly every problem disappeared. The Tsingos, lot 125 in the same sale, made me another £2000 and the Lembesis made the reserve of £6000. Once again I was back fighting and well on top of financial troubles.

This is how the art market can be. Up and down, down and up. A constant headache and heartache about what will happen the following day, in a months’ time, the following year. Challenging and promising like a siren.

Being lucky in any business is essential and I must admit I was lucky on many, many occasions. I cannot say that I was unlucky ever. Would luck continue on my side and would I keep creating the opportunities for luck to play her hand? An unsold painting and an after-sale bid had proven to be a golden opportunity and the shrewdest of moves in the middle of a recession. I had grabbed it immediately and was freed from a myriad of financial headaches.

My stories are as genuine, accurate and true as they can be. The year 1995 was a turning point in my art venture as following entries will reveal. Today and in 2015, anybody following my path has opportunities but the competition is much stiffer and the opportunities fewer. It means more work on the net, at auctions, shows etc but by NO means it is impossible, even if it looks like impossible. Patience is a virtue and that has to be exercised with prudence and stoical wait!

The Astrologer in Exhibition of November – December 2015

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