Getting Out of Trouble in !990s Recession


Financial Troubles Are For All, Small Businesses and Major Ones Too!

By the time 1992 was out, I had to do things quickly to survive. Changed course of investing, changed course of work and took up a job as a full time teacher. It had to be like that and it proved to be the best decision I had made in many years. With very little money to invest in art, a monthly steady income proved decisive and served to save the business and then expand it seriously by the end of the 1990s.

22nd August 2015

Bargain in a carpet sale

L. Bernaro

(Italian, [19th century] Painter of elaborate Arab scenes in the souk; well regarded and collected by investors in Arabic/Orientalist art. Auction price range £1000- 3000)

19th October 1994 Bonhams London – 10th February 1995, Christie’s London

Auctions are very busy places and at times hectic for experts and cataloguers. There is pressure on them to catalogue and sell items quickly for those vital commissions, which might be anything from 20-50% for the auction house. That is one of the reasons why on many occasions art is miscatalogued, as the experts in charge have no time to research and catalogue the art they sell properly. It is also possible that when a work of art is not that important it is catalogued by people who are not specialists in fine art. Thus, a lot of art remains in the hands of the wrong experts who include them for sale just to dispose of them.

Yes, believe it, please! Thank God it happens! This story about L. Bernaro is another illustration of this.

I have an inherent weakness for anything artistic, including carpets of fine quality. Carpets are fine works of art and when the quality is high, they are unbeatable. The Bonhams carpet sale in late October 1994 was described as an Orientalist Rugs and Carpets Sale. Visiting the auction and viewing the carpets was a great pastime and also an opportunity to view other sales too. Carpets covered the whole floor of Bonhams’ saleroom in Knightsbridge as well as the adjoining rooms. The surprise in those adjoining rooms was a group of drawings and a couple of paintings catalogued in that carpet sale.

That was another first and another new experience for me. I recognized the L. Bernaro painting of An Arab Market from the distance. I was pretty sure it belonged to the artist and the signature L. Bernaro confirmed that. That essential activity of looking at images in old catalogues and memorizing names and images was ever so rewarding.

It was quiet in the secondary viewing room. The smell of old carpets made it hard to stay for long there, but I had to be fast because of another reason – I did not want to attract other viewers’ interest. Quickly I checked the painting. I was happy with the quality and the condition, happy with the subject and scene. Estimated at £300-400, it was a buyers’ dream, a bargain, but could I buy at that price? It would be an absolute gift from Bonhams this time round, as I valued it at five times as much at least. I was hopeful but apprehensive and slightly concerned about a bidding war, so I decided to attend the sale and bid in person.

Christie’s King Street had sold similar paintings of the artist for £2500 and with that as a benchmark I decided that bidding up to £750 should prove a sound investment. I was reasonably optimistic of a good purchase as it was a slow time during the long 1990s recession and paintings were not selling in specialist auctions, let alone mixed sales or carpet sales. With no art dealers around, I reasonably hoped to buy the Arab Market Scene at its lowest estimate.

Waiting patiently for a bargain at Bonhams that afternoon was part of the job. I was cool and relaxed in contrast to other occasions. Why? The circumstances of the sale were perfect for me. There were no other art dealers I could recognize, and the carpet sale was stone cold with the majority of the carpets remaining unsold.

Bidding against the auctioneer, watch out for the reserve!

The bidding for the Bernaro started at £250, which I knew the auctioneer had made himself. There were no written bids, I was sure of that, and nobody in the room showed interest so I raised my hand. “I have 280,” stated the happy auctioneer, pointing at me. There was no response in the room so he added another bid to reach his reserve of £300. That was part of the auction game, which I knew very well. One final nod from me and I was sold the Bernaro at £320 plus £40 commissions. I was very satisfied with the outcome and the fact that I had paid half the sum I was prepared to bid to.

Lucky day! Lucky Buyer! Unlucky seller!

I collected the painting straight after the sale and set off for home, already thinking about the work’s resale and profits. There were no thoughts of unsold paintings or losses. Why was I so sure?

· I was certain because I had paid only one sixth of the actual auction value of the item. It was an investment with no risk in my eyes. It was like buying shares in a good company worth ten pounds at that moment for about two pounds.

· The Arab market was ticking forward well and there were no signs of recession there.

The major auction I had in mind was Christie’s, St James’ Square London, only a stone’s throw away from Bonhams. By December, I had consigned the Bernaro there and before long the February 1995 sale arrived together with the catalogue and the colour-illustrated painting at an estimate of £2-3000.

‘At The Souk’ looked very good, and as an Arab subject painting it attracted a certain type of investor/collector. On the day it sold for only £1,700 plus commissions, a result I was still happy with. Over one thousand pounds profit within four months or 300% profit on my investment was important money under those cloudy economic conditions of the 1990s. It was a good injection of funds for the business.

The strategy of investing small sums in known auction artists at bargain price was working. Since I could not sell something more expensive, I could make money in this manner and survive till better times arrived. Investments like the Bernaro were bread and butter and served my interests and strategy perfectly.

How to recognize a bargain!

When a market is underperforming that is the time for the good investor to step in and invest wisely for the future. That was the major lesson of the mid 1990s – prices of art were depressed, opportunities were aplenty! I grabbed as many as I could with both hands!

I have always been of the view that:

· A work of art is worth its market value as long as it is sold at the right time and the right place.

· A work of art by an artist with a recognized track auction record has an intrinsic value of a certain level.

· A work of art is possibly worth the average of the artist’s auction sales, if the work is of average size, quality and subject.

If a work of art is on sale below auction results and much less than the warranted average auction result, whether unsold earlier or not, it does not matter, the conclusion and advice is to invest in that work of art because the fundamentals are in place.

It has been working for me and it should work for anybody interested in profitable investments.

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