It Seems Similar to 1990s!
The late 1980s were years of prosperity. All of a sudden the situation changed with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the rest followed with a vengeance. Markets fell, economies went up the wall and people’s finances went from healthy to red and dead in an instant. In that turmoil, I was caught hopping to survive but how was that done?
The downs followed by the ups in any business!!
An inexplicable disastrous sale!
A biting, deepening, hard recession for three years caused alarm bells to go off once more by mid 1993. The difference to 1991 and 1992 was the intensity and severity. Even though my expenses on the loans and overdrafts were high, I stubbornly continued to invest small sums in Greek art, other art and contemporary art from studios. I was addicted to collecting and trading. The consolation was the regular monthly salary that kept the wolves at bay. The pain was just about bearable, but for how long? This was not good enough for me. I was in shackles and I was unhappy!
Should I sell out? Not I! There are no guarantees of sales at auctions, unless you own a high-class collection of Picassos, Matisses, Renoirs or Monets. Then, perhaps Monsieur Pinault of Christie’s will guarantee them for you in the hope they either sell very well or do not sell at all and end up in his enviable collection, one of the best in the world.
No such luck here! Selling at auction does not guarantee success ever. Sales might be great one day, but disastrous on another. One needs to experience these ups and downs of the markets in order to be prepared for the worst. The best is always welcome, but a terrible sale is hard to stomach and harder to cope with emotionally. The early 1990s tested the resilience of any business including mine, which I must admit was precariously close to bankruptcy but for the steady job that made things viable.
Mr T in Athens needed to sell and I was desperate to sell too. We agreed with not much hesitation to consign a good selection of Greek paintings at Christie’s, London, in spite of the annual Greek sale at Christie’s in Athens. It was an experiment with a small downside to it, which was partly forced upon us by the expert at Christie’s in Athens who was not agreeable on many of the issues related to our consignments. Needless to explain that both myself and Mr T found it hard at times to work with the lady there. From a casual receptionist at Christie’s, London, oops, all of a sudden, she became the expert and the main person in Athens, which seemed too quick for her.
Beware! Some experts do become experts by association, not through qualifications and experience. Appearances do mislead; titles are just allocated and assumed, not necessarily earned.
Selling important art in 1993 was like setting off from port in hurricane winds. In addition, selling Greek art in London was not the ideal place at the time. But when circumstances force one to sell, one has to sell. The agreement I made with Christie’s was simple, a 6% selling commission, and if no sale no charges. I was able to negotiate the sale with such good terms because:
· I had contacts in the right places, whose help was invaluable.
· My experience and good knowledge of the auction business and items for sale facilitated the acceptance of a consignment.
· A good consignment of ten or twenty paintings cannot be rejected easily by any auction, especially when the consignment totals hundreds of thousands of pounds.
· Auctioneers appreciate regular sellers and buyers of good value art.
November 1993, Christie’s London
The sale at Christie’s in November 1993 was a desperate attempt to raise money from various investments and pay off all my creditors. I was tired of struggling month after month to meet the payments at the end of each month. It was a vicious circle, which I could put to bed with the sale of the ace painting I had, Alexandra Exter.
There were thirty-five Greek paintings by artist and content ranging from £1500-100,000 in the 19th Century Christie’s sale of November 1993. Thirty of them belonged to Mr T and myself. The Exter painting was the top lot with a low estimate of £100,000, a reasonable reserve in my view. Although it was a slow time for all areas of the art market the Greek market was upward moving. This fact was supported by the sales in London in earlier years, those held in Athens by Mihalarias since 1987 and Christie’s since 1992.
The Greek section of the sale started misleadingly well, with an Apostolos Geralis painting belonging to Mr T selling for £18,000. That raised my hopes for the next lot, which was the Exter. I was on the hot seat. I had raised my hopes for a good sale and I had made several plans on what to do with the money raised. The Exter painting remaining unsold was inconceivable. Simply it was my trump ace and my pride!
“Alexandra Exter,” announced the auctioneer asking for £60,000 and I am trembling like an autumn leaf ready to drop and rot away.
“Sixty thousand pounds, sixty thousand. Sixty-two thousand, sixty-two thousand, I have.” The auctioneer looked anxiously around, but there was no leaf moving. No hand went up. No interest at all. The gavel came down like a ton of bricks, crashing my hopes and dreams. The Exter remained unsold at £62,000. It was a devastating blow but not the end of the world as I knew that a painting unsold today might be worth tens of thousands more in a few years’ time. That was a fact and that gave me some encouragement to disperse the blues that engulfed me.
Besides, there were thirty other paintings to make money from. No need to worry and despair! Little did I know! The pressure piled further; the next lots remained unsold too and were even worse than the Exter. Volanakis failed, Iakovides failed, Ralli failed, Lembessis, Prosalentis. Those were important names in Greek art, but there was no interest. To add to that calamity the same pattern continued with Ithakisios, Geralis, Karavia Flora, Geraniotis and even Parthenis and Nicolas Lytras. To keep the sinking boat afloat a lovely marine painting by Krystallis brought in about £3500 net. What a relief!
What happened? What did Christie’s do this time round? I had no idea! Actually, I could not think straight under the circumstances. It was so bad, so unbelievably hard to accept and understand. That was the first time that such a collection of first-rated Greek artists had remained unsold en masse. I had read the market so wrongly which was unlike me. It was incomprehensible. I guessed that such bad sales do occur from time to time and that was one of them! The impact on my morale and my business was serious but fortunately not crippling to the point of going under. I did have one small sale and I collected introductory commissions in London and Athens a couple of months later. Those commissions were like blood infusions to the sickly art business. Such sums plus my salary from teaching kept everything going although the danger of folding up was real and constant.
Unsold works of art might be worth more in later years
I mention the artists unsold in 1993 to point out that an unsold painting today does not mean it is worthless. My experience told me that actually there was a good chance of better prices in later years.
The point is well served when some of those unsold paintings sold after 1993.
· Lembessis sold for £7000 at Christie’s, Athens two years later.
· Ithakisios sold for £7,000 at Christie’s, Athens after failing to sell for £5000 in London.
· Apostolos Geralis (landscape) sold for £5,000 at Sotheby’s London a year later, after failing to sell at £3,000.
· Lytras sold for £14,000 in Athens a few years later after failing to sell at £5,000 in London.
· Volanakis sold for £75,000 a few years later at Sotheby’s.
· The Prosalentis marine picture I sold privately in Athens for £3,000 a few months later, having bought it there for only £500 in 1991, but more importantly after I had it cleaned and framed properly.
· Finally the Exter did not sell at Christie’s in 1993 but did so in 2000 at Sotheby’s, an event I shall elaborate on later.
Dealing/investing /collecting for nearly thirty years has always been a learning curve and an accumulation of experience of one sort or another. It has been crystal clear from day one that any work of art has a value and if it fails to sell today, it may sell tomorrow for more money and rarely for less. Keep faith! Choosing the right venue and time to try again to sell might lead to great surprises as was the case with the Eugene Montezin painting in 1987. Timing, change of venue, literature, better cataloguing and better economic times help to a better sale!
With a few thousand made from this sale I breathed a sigh of relief and got on to investing once again. But how long would a few thousand last with my addiction?
Follow my investments throughout the 1990s and how it worked!