For over thirty years I dealt with experts at auctions, with experts on artists and with artists themselves. Some are great, others are difficult and some are really stroppy and impossible to work with. Here is a case when I was a total amateur, a total ignaramous but trusted and took the leaf of hope on the ocean of disaster.

The first heartbreak at Sotheby’s

July 1985, Sotheby’s London

I deliberated, I procrastinated and agonised over whether to sell or keep the Jongkind – the first major painting I had invested in. Day after day, week after week, I questioned myself. I asked other people’s opinion. The only reason to sell was my burning desire to learn the business of trading art at the highest level, if it was possible. Keeping the painting would have meant an end to that dream.

Reality can be destroyed, hope can be buried but never allow a dream to die away.

Thus off to Sotheby’s I directed myself to consign the Jongkind and keep the dream alive. It was early July 1985 and the time to consign art for the autumn sales. Which sale and which department was the question, the impressionist or the 19th century department? There was no significant headache in making a decision. Impressionist art was the most popular section of the art market, which also achieved the strongest sales. Furthermore, Jongkind’s best prices were achieved in impressionist sales.

The timing of consignment was important. I had already bought a pretty Henri Lebasque painting in San Francisco, also marked out for the same Sotheby’s sale. I knew already that if I consigned two or three paintings at the same time and with the same auction and experts in charge, they would look upon my business more favourably. More business offered through them, meant more money for them in commissions both from seller and buyer! Such knowledge and policy I employed on many occasions and that won me the experts’ favour and respect! Experts do give favours, and these we all need at times! This fact will become more evident in the stories to follow, but it is not a rule, I might add!

To own a four thousand pounds painting in 1985 was a new and major experience for me. To be driving to Sotheby’s ready to consign it for sale was emotionally draining and scary. I was made of hard stuff, but this experience needed additional guts, nerve and belief in what I was doing. Did I have a master’s painting or did I believe I had what was never there? That was no time for doubts, but inexperience and the cost of the painting caused me ineffable insecurity and worry.

Anxious to hear the experts’ opinion and their valuation I arrived at Sotheby’s convinced that Jongkind would change the course of business and perhaps my life. The omens were good – the weather was great, the city of London beaming in the summer sunshine. Certain that the painting was by the artist, I dreamt of miracles and millions on my way to the centre of London.

Melanie Glore was a young expert in the Impressionist department of Sotheby’s. I had seen her on a couple of occasions taking auctions and I was impressed by her cool manner and efficiency. The formalities of introduction over, she turned to the painting with immense interest. She kept looking for a couple of minutes at the front, which seemed hours to me. She didn’t say anything. She turned the painting expertly to the back. She looked at the support, the old canvas and condition. Back to the front, she checked the signatures, once, twice, then again. She touched and felt the paint. Two minutes were centuries for me let alone four and five! The apprentice was learning from the expert. It was invaluable teaching time and it was free.

What is she doing, I kept wondering? What is the issue? Everything was a novelty. I kept looking, watching and noting. She was a specialist, an expert in the most important department of Sotheby’s. Speak, please! Tell me something!

“This is a very interesting painting Mr Constant…”

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