Hans Hofmann (American, [1880-1966]

A German born American abstract expressionist artist who profoundly influenced art in the USA with his teaching and his avant-garde art of the 1940s and 1950s. Auction price range $10,000- 6,000,000) Yes, the Contemporary Art catalogue of Sotheby’s I had bought in October or November 1985 showed two or three paintings of Hofmann selling at $50,000 plus. That was it. Could I trade an American artist in America from west to east? I had traded art from auction to auction in London, I reasoned, why not from San Francisco to New York? San Francisco is as close to New York as London, even though in the same country. I locked on the painting immediately and a frenzy of research in two countries, the UK and USA followed. Roman, the Butterfields’ expert, informed me that the painting was great! It was colourful and fresh on the market, provenanced by Kootz Gallery and of a very good period. “It’s worth a few thousand more,” he advised me. Excitement! I was happy with the information, but I was not satisfied with just the few results I had gathered about the artist’s auction sales. I needed to find out more, so I wisely spent a few pounds on the phone. I called Christie’s to find out about their contemporary sales and whether there were any Hofmann works with them. I did not have their November nor March catalogues, but I was informed that the sales of paintings by Hofmann were in the $30,000-50,000 bracket. It became evident by the end of my research that the Hofmann painting was worth at least double, if not five times as much as the estimate of Butterfields. “Nobody is interested in Hofmann’s work and you can buy it at $10,000,” Roman confided. Was Roman telling me the truth? I always respected his honesty, his opinion on the quality of paintings and his assistance in every deal I had at Butterfields! This was a more important painting however and I was worried in case the expert had a last minute interested party.
I had the funds to invest, the money from the Seago sale, and this was a fantastic opportunity to make a serious profit this time round! Absolutely great! Hofmann was a much more important artist, for a much larger and powerful market and country. This investment seemed far more exciting than the Seago, but surely millions of Americans would see it and of course go for it! Would I be able to buy it at ten thousand dollars? Impossible! American dealers would outbid me for sure! However, there was nothing to stop me from trying to buy and on my own terms. So why was there such a low estimate? I could not comprehend it. It was a puzzle but what a puzzle to have a headache about! Was there anything wrong with the Butterfields painting? I went over the headache called Hofmann many times and I reasoned:
• Roman was always honest with me, so, I concluded quickly, no problem with authenticity!
• The auction estimated conservatively.
• People had not seen the painting or they were not interested in it! After all it was such a splash of black colour on a board. Unattractive!

I had to grab the opportunity and risk the whole bank! Such opportunities rarely appear and if not taken, never reappear. I slept over the issue for nights. I had sleepless nights thinking about the investment and then… Bid and buy was the firm decision! Besides, I could see nothing more promising to invest in anywhere else. I hoped to buy the Hofmann on the phone that morning in early June and at the reserve price of $10,000. If successful, I would be left with a couple of thousand in the account, literally penniless once again. What a vicious circle, but who was to blame for that? Myself, my addiction to buying art and my desire to accumulate profits quickly and while the iron was hot. But, does it ever get cold? Buying an expressionist painting by a highly significant name at $10,000 was an event one never forgets – more so for an investor who three years earlier could barely afford a one hundred dollars painting. It was all so incredible! Was I in another world dreaming or was it all happening by accident on planet earth? I was lost in the art world. It was a dream world I enjoyed, a world I loved and one that delivered me riches. What a beautiful world!
Four o’clock in the morning London time was like midday for me. The nightbird was up singing much earlier than the auction time, unable to close his eyes, unable to suppress the excitement of a new major investment, impatient for that phone call.
It was finally time. “Six lots to the Hofmann, Mr Constant.” I paid no attention to any other results; all I wanted to know was about the Hofmann. “How are the colours of the Hofmann, miss?” “Beautiful, with a running splash of black!”

In no time, the painting I had dreamed of for about two weeks was up for sale. I was a bundle of nerves. Butterflies in my stomach, heartbeat accelerating but determination and iron will to invest. It was my biggest opportunity to buy a very important artist and my most expensive painting ever. I was risking about 80% of my cash. Could I make a 50% profit from this investment? My wild thoughts and calculations were interrupted by the voice of the auctioneer, “Hans Hofmann.” “Here we go sir,” intervened the young lady. “Seven thousand, sir! Are you bidding?” “Yes, seven thousand.” “Seven five hundred against you. Eight thousand against you,” and it became obvious to me that the auctioneer was bidding himself to reach the reserve. “Ten thousand, ten thousand against all in the room, on the phone.” At ten thousand dollars the Hofmann was knocked down to me. Feelings of relief and fear of failure flooded through me at the same time. “Ten thousand to us, sir. It’s ours sir. Congratulations! It’s a beautiful colourful painting.” I was ecstatic! This was compensation for the Seago disappointment, I felt sure about it. It was over. I had bought the painting at $11,000 ($1000 was commissions, no taxes as the work was to be exported to the UK). I was the owner of a contemporary painting by the American Expressionist, Hans Hofmann! What an exciting purchase! Was it a profitable one though? Or would I have another experience similar to the Seago? It felt unbelievable, but immediately the Hofmann started causing me enormous anxiety and worry. I felt I had made a giant step up in art investments, but I was absolutely unprepared and completely overwhelmed by it. It was just too soon after the start of this venture. Worrying questions started to surface. How do I sell such a painting in another country? How do I get a masterpiece to New York? How do I approach the two major auctions of New York to sell such an important painting so soon after buying it? The Seago experience at Sotheby’s had been pretty didactic as well as traumatic. Was I prepared for more such events and snooty people or was New York a different environment? I knew that Americans were very down to earth people from the years I spent there, but were the art experts of the same mould? New York’s auctions were unknown to me, but I had to crack that problem and get into the markets there in person! I had already shipped a painting for sale to Sotheby’s and a couple more were ready to be consigned soon. It was worth my while going to the Big Apple and meeting the people I was dealing with in person. It always helped to know them in England, why not in New York?
New York, here I come! How on earth does an amateur make it to New York and try to enter a masterpiece for sale? That was the million-dollar question, but I was not to be put off by such details. Never one to retreat, never one to buckle under pressure and lack of experience, I jumped into situations and came through difficulties a more mature, experienced and tougher man, even though on many occasions emotionally bruised and hurt at times. Armed with a huge desire to succeed and prosper, no obstacle was high enough to stop my quest in art.
I aspired high and I was inspired! First things first, though, I had to pay for the Hofmann and then have it shipped to London. It was essential to show the experts in New York that the painting had come from London and that I was not a dealer who had bought the painting only a couple of months earlier in San Francisco. That was imperative because auctioneers always like fresh paintings on the market. The Seago experience and lessons learned from that trade were invaluable.
• Being a private individual than a dealer is preferable to auctioneers and experts! I had to play a role. It was not deception! It was marketing!
• Freshness on the market of any work of art is important and preferred, thus I had to conceal the recent sale in San Francisco!
The painting arrived in London by the middle of July. The box was big but much bigger was my anxiety and eagerness to see the Hofmann and marvel at those colours I had heard so much about. The wooden box protected the work well; professional packaging at a price was paid for. Out of the box came the Hofmann, my hands trembling and anxiety mounting – no laughing matter. It was eleven thousand dollars worth of art and perhaps fifty thousand by the end of the year. Wraps off; greens, red, orange, black. Black!!! Never seen anything similar before. The thick board was covered in greens and oranges with a little bit of red and then a SPLASH, a rich splash of ebony black paint thrown on top of everything else! The finished composition was magnificent and the splash of black was indeed its trademark. That made the painting stand out but also confirmed it as of that period of the artist’s work.
Illustration XXXXXXX greeksinart It was stunning. It was a master’s creation. It was Hans Hofmann! What did the painting show? What did Hofmann want to say? I puzzled over this for some time but it was just guesswork. The artist was dead and there was no way anybody could explain the meaning and purpose of the painting except the artist himself. As H.W.Beecher says,
“ Every artist dips his brush in his own soul and paints his own nature into his pictures.” I immediately got on to work with the two major auction houses in New York. Sotheby’s estimated the painting at $30,000-50,000 and Christie’s $15,000-25,000. Better results were achieved at Sotheby’s and so my decision was to consign the Hofmann with them. I made sure that several issues that worried me were discussed prior to my travelling to New York:

• It was agreed that the painting would be entered in the best sale and in Part One of the Contemporary Art sale in November 1986.

• An illustration cost to my liking was fixed.
• The reserve was guaranteed between $30-50,000.
• I could not ask for 6% trade commission because I presented myself as a private seller from London.

“I shall see you in New York next week with the painting, sir,” were my final words to the expert in charge. Thus, preparations to conquer my new world of art began; tickets and exportation documents from the UK, importation in the United States at Kennedy Airport with a reputable agency. Everything was a new experience. I was apprehensive but determined to do things perfectly. Pan Am had no arguments in taking in the well-packed Hofmann as cargo and me as a passenger with a baggage-load of inexperience. That was roughly three years after I had started the art business and I was selling paintings at the biggest art auctions in the world. It was an amazing experience already but it was gradually getting better, more exciting, more demanding and more challenging on my whole lifestyle and emotions. Indeed, it had been an unbelievable journey into the world of art up to that point! Could it get any better? Were there any more surprises? Were there new heights to scale which I still could not dream of nor imagine? This journey was at its beginnings! I did not know! The Odyssey in art had just begun, but would I reach my Ithaca!

Please follow and like us:


Related Posts