Back in 1987 things were rosy for Greece. a new member of EU, new money coming in the country and the Greek art market had plenty of ground to cover, when compared to other markets i was involved in. it promised plenty and it deserved involvement as an experiment.

The Greek market had a great run until 2008-09 when the wheels came off of the Greek economy. the same might apply to any emerging market and for that reason i advise caution and restraint, things i never practised and paid for.

Collapsing markets come back again but how long can one wait?

A new emerging market promises plenty

I had already tasted significant success with Greek art in 1986 and also witnessed the excellent sale results of Parthenis and Ghika at Sotheby’s. It was a market moving in the right direction in spite of the world’s financial problems and came at the best time for my fledgling trading activities. Thus, Greek art became the new section of the art market to invest in and Athens the city of my business interests and art adventures.

Downtown Athens is a mixture of a modern, crazy city and a cultural hub. Old churches standing next to modern dull buildings; ancient monuments showing off proudly three thousand years of history next to modern monstrosities of cement and glass; maddening, noisy traffic; untold pollution filling your lungs with poisonous gases, chasing everybody out of the eternal city.

Walking towards Plaka and the central market of Athens towards Pylarinos gallery was nevertheless a pleasure. I was an onlooker. I was a tourist on a sort of business trip. I admired the displays in the shop windows, but my mind was more on the gallery I was to visit soon.

Pedlars were screaming their heads off to sell, crowds were rushing to their business and I was watching, taking everything in and thinking, do I want this? Can this be the place to make money? Ten minutes’ walk, was it? Perhaps less than that, but soon enough I was there. Paintings outside, vases in the windows, furniture further in. It was one of those antique shops that sold everything, new and old, the rubbish and valuable in one heap. That did not bother me. Was there a bargain among all that junk? That was the question!

I walked in eagerly but with a measured slow step. Two sales sharks rushed to help me and help themselves to my money. “I am just looking,” I stated indifferently.

I looked around and took in all the activity. I watched with curiosity the people buying and the boss in the shop, a middle-aged man who spoke little, but around whom everybody ran fearfully. That was a messy shop but somehow it was run with military precision. The phones kept ringing as if keeping time with the clanging bike bells and hooting cars and taxis outside. What a mess! This was the bazaar area of Athens!

Buying first time at a gallery for trade

Athens December 1987 – February 1988, Sotheby’s London

Dimitris Galanis

(Greek, [1882-1966] A Belle Epoch artist working most of his life in Paris. Painted beautiful women and landscapes. Respected and collected both in Greece and France. Auction price range £3,000-100,000 plus)

The Galanis drawing was literally sitting on the floor of the shop. You could not miss it, once you turned in that direction. Nothing else was near enough in quality. It stood out and sang to the viewer, “there is nothing else here! It’s just me!” It was a lovely picture of a reclining nude, beautifully and masterfully drawn in pastels. Galanis is considered a master in Greek art and a respected and much in demand master of the Belle Epoch in Paris. The pastel had all the attributes one would expect from such a work and period.

I circled it. I looked at it time and again, and then, unexpectedly, the hoarse, husky voice of a man sounded behind me.

“Good morning, can I help you? I am Pylarinos. This is a lovely drawing,” he added.

“Yes. I like it,” I responded coolly. “I am Peter Constant from London. What’s the cost?”

“This is a privately owned painting. They are asking 400,000 drachmas (£1500). I believe it is worth every penny of it.”

I remained silent! I kept looking and checking the painting’s frame and the exquisite image. It was all genuine, old, non-trade, untouched since its inception some seventy years earlier. To make matters worse for me, money was burning in my pocket. I was anxious to invest.

“It is cheap for a Galanis,” continued the husky voice interrupting my train of thoughts.

Silence on my part! It was a fair price, but in Athens one needs to bargain, one needs to play the game of negotiation and mutual giving in of some ground. The norm is to offer just about 50% of the asking price. I remained looking and admiring for another minute or two. I did not make an offer. I thanked the gallery owner and left. I was confident the painting would be there the following day. I needed to think over the possible purchase and my strategy in going about it. I am very slow in getting things done and thinking quickly is not my trademark. Slow as a donkey but always getting there somehow!

This was the first time I was buying something from a private gallery in order to trade. It was an important sum of money for a good painting. I had to consider all those factors and take them into account before my second visit, when I planned to buy the painting, there and then in cash, in sterling, hard currency!

Should you pay the full asking price or bargain in certain countries?

The pastel drawing was exquisite. A small gem that I felt could sell for about £2000 at auction in London. I could not afford to spend more than £1000. I had to be very strict with my purchases and how much I paid for them. It was a matter of good business, knowing fully well that bargaining in the east is a must. It was a matter of making as much money as possible. I slept over the issue, gave it a good thought in the morning and by midday I was in central Athens at the shop on Sophocleus Street. I had a little time for a chat, but really I was in a rush to buy and get back to London the following day.

Time is money and for me it was indeed significant money.

On entering the gallery, the owner recognized me and immediately came to me. I was straight with him, no need to beat around the bush.

“I like the painting and came to have a second look.” I looked and stared hard briefly at the beautiful nude. It was attractive and sensual and very much a drawing I would have loved in my bedroom. Why not others with more money than myself?

It was about time to try to buy. It was bargaining time. I had to bring the price down.

“What’s the last price on this?”

“I am not sure, but we can ask. I am sure a 10% discount is in line.”

I looked him straight in the eye and responded firmly. “I have very little time as I am going back to London tomorrow,” which was true. “I have £1000 in sterling for the painting. I can pay now, collect and go.” Cash is king, was my idea.

He screwed his eyes, groaned a little and then, “let me make a call, please.”

The call was made, the conversation was over quickly and he was back with me soon.

“Are you paying in pounds?” “ Yes, right now, if we reach an agreement.”

“It’s a deal,” he declared smiling.

Well, well, well! I did not expect it to be so easy. I was very happy with my new investment. Reward for the trip, I guessed. The painting was wrapped well, while I counted the money. I was on my way out of the shop when the owner unexpectedly addressed me once again.

“Can I ask for a big favour, if you allow me?”

“Yes, by any means, if I can help.” Help if you can, rest assured it will always benefit you too! One good turn brings another!

“I need a cheque of £300 for something I am buying in London. Can you help me?”

“Of course,” I replied. “No problem.” I wrote the cheque and he was ready to give me the equivalent in drachmas.

“No, no need for that. Next time I visit Athens I might buy something else from you to settle this.”

He was startled. He stared at me speechless for a moment. He took his glasses off, he looked at me for a few seconds and then he declared shakily in a hoarse whisper:

“Listen,” his voice came out emotionally loaded, “I have been in this business for thirty years. Nobody ever gave me money. Nobody trusted anything in me without a guarantee. My shop is yours from now on. Anything you buy, take it and go. You can pay me anytime you want and can.”

What a turning point and what an event! It is twenty-five years since then but it is so fresh in my mind. I made a valuable friend, who stood by his word and our business relationship was one of gentlemen helping each other.

I wasted no time with the Galanis pastel. Sell and reinvest was the idea. On my return from Athens I entered it for sale at Sotheby’s in London. It duly sold for £2500 in their secondary Impressionist Sale in February 2008. No after effects of the October 1987 exchanges crash in Greek art! Doubling my money within three months was super and my first investment in Athens proved very encouraging. It was easy to conclude that:

· Galleries offered bargain opportunities.

· Bargaining in Greece was not only necessary but also the only way to trade.

· When other markets struggle and one is new and pushing forward that is a clue to investing in that section of the market.

I had a good run of sales in spite of the stocks crash of October 1987. The money was coming back in the account in the thousands and the idea was to invest in something major with the accumulating money from all those sales. What and when was the serious question? There were opportunities, but not the one I was looking for, the major opportunity to splash a serious sum of money for the long term! Would I get the opportunity to invest in something important with little outlay?

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