Expert’s verdict on Jongkind
July 1985, Sotheby’s London
Miss Glore spoke softly and carefully chose her words in delivering her opinion and announcing her expertise.
“I do not think this is the work of Jongkind. Jongkind is an impressionist artist and this is not an impressionist painting. I am sorry to disappoint you.”
That was unexpected. Reeling from the shock, my balance seemed to falter, and short of breath I held onto the counter faint and weak at the knees. After a few moments, slowly coming back to my senses after such a major blow, I managed to ask a couple of questions.
“Other experts say this is by Jongkind,” I protested.
Miss Glore was firm and serious in her opinion. She was sympathetic, but her view was not to be changed by my protestations. That never happens at auction, unless a solid piece of information regarding the item in question is provided all of a sudden. Noticing how upset I was and perhaps taking pity on me Miss Glore added, “This is a beautiful painting nevertheless. It is worth £2,000-3,000, even if the signature is wrong. There is value in the painting without the signature.”
She tried to reassure me, but I was breathing hard and sweating profusely. It was impossible to believe and accept her expertise. It was a disaster! My first major investment and I had stepped on a banana skin. Important money was lost and the way things looked at that moment, I wished the earth would open up and swallow me! I stood lost, unable to take in what had happened. Then, I heard Melanie Glore whispering and giving me some hope, a glimmer of hope!
“Sir, would you mind leaving the painting with us for further research? There is an expert on the artist and perhaps he can help us attribute the work to Jongkind!”
That was a straw I could cling to. I had no idea what else to do. I willingly agreed to leave the painting for research. I was slightly relieved but completely exhausted from the experience and the disappointing, depressing news. Was this what was meant to be an investor in fine art? That was worse than torture! Was I one for such experiences? How many more times would I suffer the same torture in the years to come?
Miss Glore’s expertise was ringing in my ears, driving me insane all the way home. “I do not think this is a work by Jongkind. However, it is worth £2,000-3,000 as it is. Let us research the painting.”
I had bought value for money, without knowing it, but had not invested for profit. That was the essence of the whole event, I concluded. I had risked top money for nothing! To top it all, that was borrowed money too! I felt stupid! Really stupid! Thoughts and questions whirled in my head on the long way back home. I cursed and hit the steering wheel of the car repeatedly. I screamed at my stupidity. “Naïve! Stupid! Ignorant idiot!” There was nobody else to blame. It was all my doing and my undoing! What do I do now? What’s going to happen? Wake up man! Think! Was I finished financially or was that a hiccup? Could I survive this blow? I still had the other paintings and investments! I was not wiped out, even if the painting proved to be a major mistake. I still hoped! Always the optimist! Optimism was a life-saving character trait!
My shock turned to anger by the time I returned home, half an hour later. How come the German auctioneers described the painting as by Jongkind, whereas Sotheby’s expert could not ascribe it to the artist? I was learning the hard way about the intricacies of auction business and the opinion of experts. Experts! Experts!
Opinions can be completely contradictory between two experts on the same item! Even the same expert can contradict himself/herself, as you will read further on in my diary! Watch out as they pull the strings of success or failure. Should they, though?
As soon as I arrived home, I called the German auction and in anger questioned the attribution to the Jongkind painting. The expert was at hand, polite and to the point.
“Sir, we did not say it was by Jongkind, we attributed the work to Jongkind.”
“How did you do that?” I asked in anger.
“The catalogue says ‘zugeschrieben’ sir. Zugeschrieben means “attributed to the artist”. We were not sure whether it was by Jongkind or not.”
I fell silent and apologized politely. I collapsed on the couch, sighed in disgust and hid my face under the cushions. All hope was lost. I could not even return the painting to Carola Van Ham; it was not a Jongkind! That was it! The investment was a serious mistake.
Impatience, carelessness and inexperience had led me to a purchase of expensive art without asking important questions. Many questions! I asked none and that was wrong! The word copy, the word fake, the murky world of art was raising its poisonous head much sooner than I had expected and at the most crucial time of my art dealing life. Such a mistake could spell the end of the dream and the end of my journey. I had made a mess of my life and my family. I was not good enough for this business. Stick to teaching, you ignoramus!
All I could do now was hope! Hope that somehow the expert on Jongkind would give the thumbs up to the attractive Dutch Canal Scene signed twice, Jongkind.
It was the first or second week of August 1985. I still had not heard from Sotheby’s and I dreaded their letter or phone call. The expert’s verdict would mean the loss of several thousand pounds or a profit of as many. It was a very significant swing. It could make or perhaps break my venture into the art world.
With a very young family and a wife looking after two children of less than two years old I was struggling to make ends meet. I returned from another long day out at auctions and looking around in London. No money to be made! Recession! Expenses going from place to place were running high, but I was determined and stubborn! Doggedly stubborn! I was learning fast! I was educating myself at auctions, in museums, in galleries. That required time and money, which was lacking that summer. It was all invested for better or worse. I felt I was getting somewhere, but it was slow and hard. How long could I keep the game going?
The phone rang. The dreaded call from Sotheby’s about the Jongkind, I wondered? I was scared to hear the news I had already accepted as bad.
“Mr Constant?” It was not Melanie Glore.
“Yes,” I replied quietly dreading the news to come.
“This is Sotheby’s Impressionist Department. This is about the Jongkind picture you brought to us a few weeks ago for a report.”
“Yes?” I whispered expecting the bad news.
“The expert on the artist confirmed…
“…the painting is by the artist and we will include it in the October sale with an estimate of £6-8000, if you agree.”
I was speechless for a few moments. I wanted to scream and shout, Yes, Yes, Yes, but I couldn’t. Without much thinking I agreed to all of Sotheby’s suggestions, what else? Salvation came and it was such a relief. I could breathe once again. A lifeline had been thrown to me. It was unexpected and wonderful. Once again I could look to autumn with optimism and hope of better days, provided the sale reached expectations and estimates.
‘Dum Spiro Spero!’ (As long as I live, I hope)
The experiences of buying and consigning the Jongking painting were plenty and significant lessons became part of my trading:
· Take the experts’ opinion at auctions with a pinch of salt.
· No expert at auction knows everything therefore get a second and third expert opinion when a work of art is rejected by an auction.
· Ask for the opinion of an expert on an artist, especially if your item is significantly expensive.
· Artists have different periods of work as Jongkind did, a fact that neither the expert at Sotheby’s nor the expert of the German auction knew well.
Although wrong about the Jongkind, Melanie Glore had also been aware that perhaps she shouldn’t reject outright such a lovely painting. Asking for the opinion of a more knowledgeable person and expert on the artist was the right idea and policy. However, one might meet an expert who cannot be bothered to do the right thing. Be aware of that and ask for advice elsewhere. It won’t hurt! Little did I know that the advice I extend here, I would soon need myself at the same place and in the same rooms in the hands of another expert.
What ups and downs with this painting already! Could I cope with the emotions of complete exasperation and then sheer elation that I was already experiencing in the art trade? It was obvious that the fine art business was not straightforward and not for the faint-hearted! Was I up to such kinds of trials and tribulations? Coming from a poor background, where I had to work hard and fight my way to reach where I was at that moment, I felt well prepared for them! In fact in a strange and weird way I enjoyed the double edge of the art trade: uncertainty, challenge, on the precipice of disaster and then reward and triumph.
Crazy isn’t it? Yet, I loved it. It was the ultimate challenge for a highly ambitious, restless entrepreneur.
The Jongkind news was magnificent news! Yes, I had hit the good one, even though an apprentice, and now I had two good paintings for sale in the same auction in October. Where? At Sotheby’s, the biggest auction house in the world! A year earlier I was taking my first steps in the art auction business with investments up to one hundred pounds in the smallest and poorest auction rooms. Now, twelve months later, I was playing ball with the big investors in major international auctions with two paintings estimated at £6,000-8,000 and £3,000-5000. Remember that was 1985. That was quite some money in those days!
There was immense satisfaction, but I knew I was far from being the good dealer I had to be in order to compete with the big collectors, where the serious money was made. This was a game of billions and I had a few thousand pounds tied up in a couple of paintings bought with borrowed money! Art was the arena of the millionnaires and billionnaires! Was I getting ahead of myself? Could I climb that mountain of art riches? Would my aspirations and dreams become reality or would they become just an unfulfilled fantasy?
Determined I was and will of steel I had. I was learning fast and was trading well. My database of catalogues and auction results worldwide was growing and I was spending on average about one hundred pounds a week on catalogues from all over the world hoping that one of them would give me a lead, a bargain somewhere, and pay for this huge expense. Knowledge is power! Knowledge makes money! I knew that already, but I was still well behind the seasoned dealers and experts. I was still an apprentice, an amateur! I had two years’ experience in the art auction market, but more was required, a lot more, and substantially more money was necessary in order to break into the big time. Would I be able to do that? I did not know.
What I did know was that my bank balance was dire; bank expenses, travelling to auctions and auction commissions were eating up most of the profits. I was working for them! I needed to sell otherwise I was out of pocket and into debt. Serious debt! I was working for nothing and far worse I loved the art I was buying. I would have loved to keep all of it, but that was impossible. I had very little money of my own but just enough to keep my dreams alive.
I wanted to learn the business as best and as quickly as I could and the only way to do that was by carrying on trading. I kept repeating to myself, invest, invest, invest and take small risks. I looked to the future for the rewards of my early labours and investments.
In art I trusted all!
Throughout my ventures there were two conflicting emotions deep inside me. Buying art to make money, which meant crude, cold calculation of profits, and love for art in general, which I had to sacrifice for the sake of profit. That was a tricky balance to seek, and in 1985 it was impossible to achieve. Too early for that love of art, very little money in my pocket. I needed more time and money invested in my knowledge before I could afford the LOVE for art. That had to wait for a few more years at least!
Two sales – two triumphs?
October 1985, Sotheby’s London
July, August and September are usually quiet months in the art business, even though small auctions carry on with fewer sales and break the monotony of long summers. I was, more than anything, living two months down the timeline to October. There was no holiday, no break for me. I kept buying small items here and there and I kept accumulating knowledge and building the foundations of the business. I travelled extensively to auctions and got involved in higher value investments. I also developed a taste I did not have before. Instead of only 19th century art, now I looked at impressionist and even contemporary art.
Trading art was turning into a serious business and it was a no brainer to notice that the big money was in impressionist and contemporary art. Learning quickly and adapting to my newly found knowledge as fast as I could was paramount. I had to, if I was to succeed. Challenging was not the word. Pulling me like a magnet, I was caught heart and soul in a big way. Art became a passion. Trading art became an addiction! I was hooked!
In spite of my busy schedule in September and October at schools, one major event was on my mind, the sale of Impressionist and Modern paintings at Sotheby’s London on 23rd October. I considered it the making or breaking of my new enterprise, a life-changing new beginning and venture. Strange how my life had changed within two years; it depended more on art than teaching. I was living with dates of sales and purchases. Time flew by like a hurricane uprooting all other earlier past-time activities. All that mattered was art and family! From a worried mature student in linguistics two years earlier, I had become a full-time dad, a teacher and a fledgling art investor. That was some change!
When will I get the sale catalogue? Will they include my paintings in the sale or will there be a last minute problem? Will the paintings sell or would there be a major issue with them? These thoughts plus many more negative ones clouded my mind. It was the first major sale and failure meant disaster. I had literally hooked all my hopes and future plans on one sale! I was a very, very worried man hanging loosely from the fragile mood of an art auction! Being an optimist though, I was expecting two good sales to recoup my investment as well as make good profits.
Time flies when you expect things to happen and you are looking forward for events to unfold. The catalogue arrived with both paintings included. I had no idea about the colouring of the Lebasque, still black and white in the catalogue for cost reasons, but the Jongkind looked magnificent in colour. The painting gave me hope, lifted my spirits and excited the imagination.
October 20th, Sunday! Viewing of the impressionist sale was on and I was at Sotheby’s first thing, full of hope but also hugely apprehensive. The great rooms of Sotheby’s are huge, with many turns and twists. I ignored all the other paintings and made a dash for the Lebasque. Where was it? A few more anxious moments and there! The moment I spotted it, I literally ran to look at it closely.
First time impression! I gasped in wonder. It was “beautiful!” What outstanding colours! What a great composition! What a fantastic view of the Côte d’Azur! Yes, that was the one I hoped for and a lot more. Roman was right in his comments about the painting and I was so grateful to this trustworthy gentleman. I was onto a winner, no doubt about that. The Jongkind was equally impressive in the saleroom and both paintings boosted the belief I had in them. I was full of confidence as I stepped out of Sotheby’s into a buzzing New Bond Street! Life was promising and art was a new, original spice!
After three sleepless nights, Wednesday arrived, the day of the sale! The train seemed to take days to reach Oxford Street, Central London. Entering Sotheby’s main saleroom at 10.15am the room was half full; by 10.30am, the start of the sale, the room was packed. How was I feeling in this strange, new world? Should I admit I was shaking like a leaf? What if the paintings failed to sell? That would cost me about seven hundred pounds in illustrations, insurance and VAT. Should I say I was scared and sweating profusely before the auctioneer announced, “Lot two, Henri Lebasque. I have a lot of interest…”
The bidding soon enough reached £3000. A well-dressed lady raised her paddle followed by two other bidders, but she was resolute and her paddle stayed up. Bidding continued, hands and nods unseen were seen by the auctioneer and at £5,200 the lady succeeded in buying the Lebasque. I was all smiles and a pocketful of profit – the biggest profit I had made from a single sale of art up to that moment. I felt happy, nervously calm, but also drained! It was emotional work equal to months of physical labour, but the reward was magnificent.
Six lots further down was the Jongkind painting. Calm down, it will be fine I vainly tried to psych myself, but panic buttons were going off on their own! Always the same feelings before a sale – anxiety, worry, sickness in the stomach, pathetic pessimism, yet optimism too!
“Lot 8, Johan Barthold Jongkind,” called the auctioneer loudly and the painting came into view on the pedestal. No computers and screen images in those days. It was a fantastic painting!
“I have a lot of interest in this lot. Six thousand I have and ….six thousand five hundred, six thousand five hundred…”
There was a pause in the bidding. I crossed myself, begging for a little more.
“Seven thousand I have there now,” pointed the auctioneer.
I kept watching and praying for more! Go on guys! Go on! How I wanted them to fight it out to ten and fifteen thousand pounds!
“Seven thousand two hundred and fifty” and the other bidder raised his hand once again.
“£7500 to you sir! £7750 I have against you sir, £8000 to you sir, £8000, £8000, no further bids?” and the hammer flashed and thundered down. The torture was over! The two French gentlemen had fought a short battle with a winning bid of £8,000 to the young man, Raul Laurent, who I was to meet later as an art expert at Pillon Auctions, Calais.
I am satisfied and happy. Happy? You cannot say. I was overwhelmed with emotion. Such success and so much money and profits! I had never had this before, never tasted it before! This business was great, amazing and close to unbelievable! I pinched myself to make sure that things were in the realm of reality. This was life changing! My confidence was sky high and my plans for the future were racing ahead of wisdom.
I ran to the nearest phone to let my wife know about our good fortune. She was very worried as always. “Sold! Both sold at £5200 and £8000,” I shouted loudly.
When I informed the bank about the sales the new bank manager stated sceptically, “I’ll believe what you say when I see the money in the bank and in your account.” Bankers! Always suspicious and always mistrustful of clients! Terrible! I had £15,000 coming into the account in the following five weeks. More than half of that amount was net profit. It seemed unreal to me and not credible to the bank manager. However, that’s how it was! Incredible and miraculous!!
It was unbelievable to be able to make money at the higher end of the art market so early on in the venture. What would happen in two or three years’ time when I was more informed and better equipped to judge and invest? I was still unconvinced. I was still unsure whether it was first time lucky or whether indeed there was so much money to be made in the art business. The honey I had tasted was sweet, but could it get sweeter with maturity and experience?