First auction investments – ignorance is bliss!
Late October 1983, Lewes, Sussex
Three days before attending the auction at Lewes in October 1983 I visited my bank and insisted on seeing the manager for a temporary loan of £2000 there and then. I was a newcomer to England and knew nothing about how loans were made and how one approached the bank manager for a facility. However, I had the audacity to demand to see the bank manager, at that moment and on that day, which happened luckily! He was a gentleman in his fifties who, I assumed, saw many people like myself. I explained my problem quickly and in a few minutes he addressed me warmly, smiling and with concern,
“ Mr Constant, I do not know you. You are new to our bank. You have two accounts with us. One has two pounds in it and the other one zero. I cannot lend you any money. Go and do whatever you wish to do with antiques and auctions and come back in six months. If I see the progress I expect in your accounts in this business idea of yours, I will lend you £10,000, not just two.”
I was disappointed, to say the least! I was extremely angry with the man. How dare he tell me that and reject a request for such a small loan? It was a setback! There was no money from anybody. I had to do it with my own funds. Perhaps it’s better like that, I admitted to myself. Make it on my own, like I always did. That was it! No thousands of pounds to invest in antiques! No loans! No overdrafts and significantly no bank to hassle me about what I was doing with my own money.
It was the last week of October and my friend and I made our way to Gorringes auctions in Lewes, East Sussex. We had the same passion, the same goals and ambitions! Buy antiques for profit, whatever took our fancy and looked good. Both of us had no idea about antiques or art; we were naïve and adventurous but we were not aware of that. Were we rich? Absolutely not! It was a struggle to survive and make ends meet for both of us – I, as a supply teacher, and he, as a property developer.
How ignorant we were! How happy we were in our ignorance! Nobody to ask for advice, nowhere to look for information, nobody to volunteer a bit of caution and a caring word; worst of all we felt we knew everything! If this sounds familiar, please be careful and carry on reading.
I had £210 in my pocket, my own hard-earned money. That was all the money I had in the bank. Yes, the total amount I had left from one month’s work and I took it all out to invest in antiques about which I knew nothing! Aren’t I glad I had no more money to spend! Wasn’t that bank manager wise! Was I so clever or that naive? I can say now, with no shame, “I was very ignorant and naive.” I had no idea about antiques or art. My knowledge was absolutely nil, non-existent! Yet, I was going to invest the only money I had in the bank. Irresponsible, to say the least!
Prices in those days were low compared to today. Computers were rare, the Internet non- existent in any form or way for research. The only thing that helped me was a good eye for spotting beautiful things, which by the way most of us can do.
The drive to Lewes was pleasant. The conversation was about the items we had planned to buy. Soon enough we arrived just outside Lewes. High up above the town the narrow road slowly descended under a golden canopy of trees to reveal the picturesque town of Lewes nestling in the distance. As we approached I couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of this town and its surroundings. The old centre with its narrow streets, historic houses and quaint small shops continued to delight as we drove through.
We eventually stumbled on the auction house as we made our way through the winding main street of Lewes. Gorringes auctions looked unimpressive from the outside. The premises spoke of an old house and an old auction business. Inside was no different. Furniture crammed the rooms downstairs as well as upstairs, and displayed throughout, wherever there was space, were vases, pots, porcelain, paintings, jewellery, books, wine and what else. A mixed sale of everything!
Where do I start? Which items do I target? Where was the edge? Where was that extra something, that special knowledge in me to make this new passion work? I had no idea, not a clue!
The auction prices of most items in that first auction were way beyond my means and my pocket. In spite of that I managed to buy a pair of vases, two pictures, a Chinese bowl, and I cannot remember what else. Oh, yes, a large Arab/Greek looking bronze tray, which I still have. It cost me two pounds, dear readers. I still treasure it. My friend did exactly the same thing and we generally spent good money for things nobody else wanted to buy. That, of course, we did not know in our naivety. We spent the whole day at the auction and after paying for our purchases we started packing them happily into boxes for the trip back to London.
The auctioneer did know about prices and the value of items. On approaching us he stated jokingly and somewhat concerned, “ Hi chaps! I see you bought many different things. I hope you knew what you bought!”
Oops! The truth was starkly spoken!!
I looked at my friend, he looked at me while we were packing our purchases and in unison laughed his remark off and cursed him quietly in our own lingo! How dare he? What does he know? Obviously, we thought the auction arena was just for us to roam and prosper, just like that. That remark of the auctioneer was a wake up call. I knew nothing, I had no experience and I had to knuckle down and work hard, if I was serious about auctions and auction markets.
The auction baptism was fortunately not a drowning one! The mish mash of vases, bowls, watercolours and oils proved worth the experience. I sold all those items, except the tray. I made a little profit, but the most came from a lovely painting I bought for £10 and sold for £60 soon after. I cannot remember the artist, but it was a very good return at that time. The pair of modern vases was really attractive. The same auction that sold the candelabra for me managed to sell them for £60 soon after, thus doubling my £30 investment, minus about eight pounds selling commission. I was really pleased with those results. It boosted my confidence and my belief that whatever looked pretty could make profits. It also partly covered my petrol and car costs to various small auctions in London.
It was an expensive business when catalogues cost one to five pounds each and any trip outside London cost a minimum ten pounds. It was expensive when buying and selling through auction with commissions and other expenses totalling about 20% of the trade. There was a family to feed and a household to set up. There were car expenses and personal expenses. Making ten pounds from time to time was not enough. However, supply teaching brought the money in and made it possible for me to pursue the dream that was just beginning to emerge and take vague shape – become a dealer and investor in antiques and art while still teaching.
It was a struggle but which beginning is not? Nevertheless, the decision had been taken! Trade in antiques! Was making a few pounds per item sufficient enough to cover my costs? Experience would tell me soon enough! It was not worth my troubles unless I concentrated on one area and one area in depth. Antique furniture was out of the question. It was bulky, needed transportation and warehouse facilities, and prices, although good, were not exceptional. Porcelain, jewellery etc I did not find interesting enough. Art, however, I loved. It was easy to store and transport and most importantly the most promising and lucrative. Although I was a novice, I concluded that:
· There were plenty of art auctions worldwide which offered plenty of opportunities and the potential to make money.
· Profits from paintings were good, even though I had only minor experience of this myself.
· There was a chance to buy that lost masterpiece or that sleeper nobody spots, the dream of every art investor!