Contemporary Art Sales in New York

The Art Market Converges in New York Twice A Year

The world of art has moved several steps forward in the last thirty years and Contemporary art has taken over as the leader of the art market from Impressionist and Modern art. New York is the centre of this scene for years now and it still is.

I was a member of shaking up this market exactly 30 years ago in 1986 with the painting you see below. My experiences and mmories are set below as accurately as possible.

Hans Hofmann

The Hofmann sale – a test of nerves

10th November 1986, Sotheby’s New York

By the end of October 1986 Greek art had rewarded its new disciple generously. I could afford a trip to New York for the Hofmann sale and I wanted to be there. My selfish ego needed to be present for two reasons; experience the great sale up close and avoid unnecessary anxiety! At the same time I could collect the Montezin painting that had unexpectedly remained unsold at Sotheby’s New York in early October thus saving a little money. Finally, if the wind was favourable and according to the route mapped already, the plan was to carry on to San Francisco for the November auction at Butterfields & Butterfields. I wanted to make reality a recurring dream of the last few weeks – acquire a painting by Bernard Buffet, the French contemporary artist, whose price bracket I could see climbing very high. The sale of the Greek watercolours and statues had brought me unexpected rewards and enabled me to aspire higher and dream further.

God willing, I should be able to buy the Buffet, I thought wishfully! Always on the lookout for desirable and collectable paintings, always pushing myself to the limit of my resources! There was no room for error, no room for long-term investments. The maximum length of time I gave for each investment was six months, extended soon after to one year. That policy had worked wonders up to that point and that I would follow until circumstances forced me to change it. It looked the absolute perfect policy at the time, but the future showed soon enough that there were better prospects to come for nearly all the good paintings I had invested in, had I exercised a little patience. I had been selling so quickly for a quick profit, but was it the perfect investment policy in art? Was trying to sell the Hofmann just after I bought it a wise move and policy? Wouldn’t it have been better to wait for a year or two? Yes, if I had known that I would sell the investments in Greek art before the Hofmann.

Early November! Exciting times, dreamland time! Flying to New York for the Hofmann sale would have been impossible three years earlier. If anybody had told me that I would be in the Big Apple this time as an art dealer, I would have laughed and most likely said “you are off your trolley, dude!”

The immense desire to feel the pulse of the famous Contemporary Evening Art Sale of Sotheby’s led me to New York in early November. Two days before the auction I made my way to the viewing, confident of a good sale. The city looked and felt welcoming to me, like it did in 1972 and later 1982, my earlier long stays in the Big Apple. Somehow I ignored the hustle and bustle of the city. I closed out the millions of people and the trillions of dollars and focused on art and one artist, Hans Hofmann.

Cool and comfortable in my thoughts and expectations I walk into Sotheby’s oblivious of my surroundings. All of a sudden I find myself in a semi-dark theatre of art that fascinates me, scares me, sends shivers down my spine. A cave-like atmosphere leads to a mythical, dream world broken up by flashes of intense light or works of art. Is it real or is it a dream? The real, actual, physical presence of the art is overwhelming. It is immense, overpowering and disconcerting; it is theatre indeed in that massive exhibition room. I am nearly alone, mesmerized, magnetized and lost in the heart of that magic world of contemporary art.

It was the first contemporary exhibition I had ever viewed and even though I had already seen the paintings in the catalogue many times, no experience of earlier years had prepared me adequately for what I was experiencing inside Sotheby’s that day. Was I an actor in all that? Apparently, yes! Where do I start? Where is my treasure? I looked around in awe having no idea which way to proceed. Some of the exhibits were enormous, others inspiring, especially the Jasper Johns star lot of the American Flag. I was mightily impressed. The Hofmann, although quite large, looked small compared to the other mega-size paintings in the sale. I wished it were slightly bigger. However, it did look attractive with colours that pulled the viewer in to closer inspection. My hopes were lifted on seeing the painting from close range once again.

I was still staring and admiring the Hofmann and living my dream, when the expert in charge, the same gentleman I saw in the summer, approached me and we started chatting. He was polite and very friendly but then he broke the news to me:

“We know that you bought the painting in San Francisco and that won’t help the painting. You know that fresh paintings on the market make more money than resold ones. But we still like the painting and hope it sells well.”

That was terrible news! That was damning! I had dreaded such a development, yet I was completely unprepared for the news. A huge emptiness in my stomach ballooned and a wave of pessimism overtook me. My confidence collapsed, feelings of failure returned and another unsold scenario was painting itself fast in my mind. The dark ghost of the unsold Montezin was now haunting me in the Hofmann in the same premises. New York was seemingly not for me.

I pretended I was not bothered by the news, but actually I was in a panic. I suspected such an eventuality, but I suppressed the possibility and refused to put it in the equation of the sale. Now it was a fact and it far outweighed all other thoughts and permutations. With head down, spirits at very low, dangerous levels I took to the streets of New York, shutting out everything except the upcoming sale.

What if the painting remained unsold? What am I going to do with it? Coming to New York twice in the year had already cost more than £1000. An unsold painting in such an auction would cost me around another £800 in unsold charges. Reality was finding me out, but I was a gambling man. I either doubled my money or lost £800 in the process. Could I take such a loss? Just about, after the Greek art sales. Furthermore and of much greater importance, I had already learned that if a good painting remained unsold for one reason or another, it could sell better next time out, if timing and venue were right. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if the Hofmann failed to sell I comforted myself. There would be other opportunities. If nothing else, I would have something to talk about to my children and grandchildren in later years. I never thought it would be to the whole world in these memoirs twenty-seven years later.

Auctioneers Do Make a Difference!

I had an uncomfortable day in New Jersey with nerves aplenty, worries a million. My only consolation was earlier sales results on the artist. Trying to forget about the feared disaster, I busied myself with the Butterfields catalogue. My main target was Buffet but nothing to lose if I prepared myself for other paintings as well.

The day of the sale could not come earlier. The nightmare of an unsold painting played repeatedly in my sleep the night before. The bus trip to Port Authority, New York was short, but I felt refreshed after a few minutes of a power nap on the bus. I walked along 42nd Street, Broadway, 5th Avenue trying to shut out the city, the people, the noise, the offensive smells and fumes and kept walking and walking – walking was forgetting was the idea but no such luck. It was all in vain.

Arriving at Sotheby’s about a whole hour before the sale, I paced briskly round and round the block. The Hofmann, what would happen? How would things go inside that building? Crossing myself a million times was no exaggeration. Begging for mercy and help from above was my only hope.

Sotheby’s entrance was rather quiet but by six-thirty things started moving and it was not long before the limousines were jamming the entrance of the most famous auction house in the world. Personalities I could not recognise nor remember, glamorous couples, well-groomed people made their way into Sotheby’s. Who was I to be mixing with such a crowd? Three years earlier, I could not afford art of a few pounds. Now? I was amongst the millionaires and billionaires of America. It was the moment and day of breaking into the top echelon of the art market. It was an awesome moment for me, another life-changing experience. I should have felt overwhelmed but that was not the case. Yes, I was still afraid of the consequences of an unsold painting, but on seeing all the glitter and razzmatazz, confidence returned and hopes of a sale increased.

At about a quarter to seven I approached the entrance of Sotheby’s without an invitation but already known by many people in the Contemporary art department. Apologies for turning up without an invitation accepted, I was allowed in the building and into the huge auction room. The vast expanse of seats was already occupied and there was an eerie silence in the room. About a thousand people were sitting almost silently in expectation of one of the biggest sales of 1986 and I … I stood lonely at the back; a lone figure in a billionnaires’ arena hoping for my own millions in art.

The theatre was ready for action. John Marion, the auctioneer, walked onto the rostrum. With the callers’ assistants well in place, the telephonists in their seats, the dance of auctioning art worth millions commenced with the audience in absolute silence. However, full salerooms do not guarantee strong prices and plenty of bidding. There were no fireworks, no impressive prices and the bidding was rather weak in spite of the urgings and prompts of the affable auctioneer. The auction was slow and worryingly patchy. It was not such a good start. There were too many spectators and very few actors in that theatre of millions. The millionnaires were present but they were watching, they were measuring the strength of the market. How else had they made their millions and billions?

The auctioneer was very good. It was tough going, but John Marion, one of the top auctioneers at Sotheby’s, was made of hard stuff too and well up to the task. He was able to squeeze water out of a stone and sell a painting. I was all jittery and literally really hanging from a thin thread in those rooms. It was inexperience. It was the occasion, the revelation that nearly everybody in the room knew that the Hofmann had sold a few months earlier in San Francisco for just eleven thousand dollars. It was a combination of everything testing the amateur. God help me!

“Lot 21, Hans Hofmann,” announced Marion, looking closely at the painting.

“Twenty-thousand I have.” That was normal, two thirds of the low estimate. He was positive, he was happy with the painting and pre-sale information, but I was terrified! I was not simply watching a drama – I was living it to the full!

“Twenty-two I have,” but that I could see was against the column. There were no bidders, no interested investors.

“Twenty-five thousand, I have,” and he pointed to a gentleman sitting at the front of the huge room. Nobody else moved. (I am sweating freely and as usual burning hot. Unsold, unsold, unsold, I wrote on my catalogue! Horror of horrors!)

“Twenty-eight I have against you sir. (I could see the gentleman sitting with his wife at the front, a real buyer and temporary relief). Would you bid thirty?” John Marion asked positively. No response.

“Twenty-eight thousand I have,” which was still not enough for my $30,000 reserve. “Twenty-eight thousand against you sir.” Still no response from the floor, but the only bidder was talking to his wife, I assume discussing the price of the Hofmann. John Marion was not just any auctioneer. He was one of the best in the business. He insisted, he looked left and he looked right. He stared in the centre like a hawk. Turning to the gentleman at the front he asked politely, honey pouring out of his mouth, “One more sir? This is a lovely painting.” My heart stopped, my prayers to all saints were nearly audible and finally the hand went up once more and the Hofmann scraped through as sold.

“Thirty thousand dollars, I have. Sold for thirty thousand dollars, to you sir!” The gavel thundered down and out came a huge sigh of relief from my chest and a great thank you to the auctioneer. He made that sale possible. I breathed in and out quickly several times and came back to some sort of normality after two horrible minutes of auction torture. Thank you John Marion, I kept saying to myself. Thank you God and Lady Luck! That sale brought me $16,000 profit, the biggest ever sum of money made from a single piece of art up to that moment.

Who and what made that possible? Was it God? Was it luck? Was it knowledge? Was it hard work? I am still unsure.

I was to regret that sale many times later in 1988 and 1989 and of course today. However, I was thrilled with the sale at the time. It was a great weight off my shoulders. “To you sir, $30,000,” the auctioneer had said bringing the gavel down with a huge thud. I saw it and visualized it many times. It had happened, it was not a dream. It was reality! From a small auction in London and a sale of fourteen pounds in 1983 to the top auction room of the world and a sale of thirty thousand dollars in 1986. Miracle of miracles!

Learning a trade, acquiring experience in any business is a slow process and an accumulation of knowledge over time. The Hofmann investment brought me a huge sum of money and taught me numerous lessons, which apply to many investors in art:

· There are bargains to be had all over the world.

· Marketing an investment and managing its sale is as important as the investment itself.

· It is possible to trade within the USA, even though resident in another country.

· Higher quality investments bring higher returns.

· A good auctioneer can make a difference to a sale.

Contemporaray art in those days was a few million dollars. Today it is close to breaking the billion dollars barriers for ever sale.

Peter Constant

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