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 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 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 matter but content matters too!!


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