Investing in a Serious painting Proved Near Impossible in 1988


Luck Was required but Work and Perseverance too!

In 1988 I had a run of great sales and the money was sitting in the bank. I kept accumulating a serious sum of money intending to invest in one important painting with potential in the long run.

What happened and how did I manage that?

Alexandra Exter Russian Avant-Garde artist

Can I offer a painting for sale even before I have it in my hands?

I had lost hope of buying anything important by June 1988. Nevertheless, I have never been one to give up, forever an optimist and believer. The catalogue from San Francisco arrived in early June as usual. There were many paintings and there appeared nothing to attract me at first glance, but re-visiting catalogues and checking artists’ names twice and three times was routine and essential. That exercise had proved profitable in earlier years and so I kept up the practice. It was imperative to do this, as something might jog the memory and perhaps identify a potential bargain! Remember that it is impossible to research hundreds or thousands of artists overnight, so it is essential to have for immediate recall thousands of names to work on. Yes, thousands increase your chances of a bargain somewhere!

Marcel Dyf

(French, [1899-1985] Modernist artist, painting the beautiful landscapes of Southern France in a free style and bright pastel colouring. Extensively collected in France, Britain, the United States and Canada. Auction price range £2,000 – 20,000)

7th June 1988 San Francisco – 6th September 1988 Lewes, East Sussex, England

Looking at the entries in that catalogue for the fifth time, I kept stopping at one particular painting by Marcel Dyf. I had already noticed a certain movement on this artist in London. I had also seen paintings of the artist at Frost and Reed in London on Bond Street and then Stacey-Marks in Eastbourne. The major auction rooms were selling his work at about £5000, which meant that the galleries were selling two to three times more than that. Yes, Marcel Dyf was a popular artist with serious backing in England and France and to a lesser degree in the USA. He was an international commodity stock with a good price tag and an upward looking selling curve, which I attributed partly to his recent passing away. It was a good shout!

The Dyf in the Butterfields sale was very pretty according to Roman, the expert in charge. It was a sea-view with boats in Southern France. The style was free, strong, sure and likeable. The size was middle of the road 45 x 55cm. It looked attractive, although illustrated in black and white, and was worth at that moment about £4-5000 in London. If I bought at £2,000 I would make some money to carry on, since no major piece had appeared on the horizon anywhere. Some further research convinced me that I was onto the right painting with potential for better in the near future, since the market was also picking up well after the exchanges disaster of October 1987.

Luckily, I bought the painting at £2200, which was on the low side of what I was prepared to pay. However, although happy with the purchase I was unhappy at the same time. While planning the purchase of the Dyf and having committed to it, I had spotted another painting in Paris that perhaps was the major painting I had been waiting to invest in. That painting was a lot more desirable than the Dyf and taking away some £2000 from my funds was not ideal.

Time was of the essence in all my purchases and sales in those years. Where was the best place to sell the painting given the restrictions of time? Which was the most attractive and convenient place to work with? After serious thought and after carefully analysing the results of Gorringes auctions in Lewes, East Sussex, I decided that the best place to sell and recoup my investment quickly was there. Knowing the auctioneers well was a great advantage; being well aware of their sales and results was essential. Their first sale of the year was in the first week of September, so I knew I would have a problem in bringing the picture over in time and having it catalogued too.

Trust and honesty in this business is extremely important

I wasted no time in calling Gorringes’ owner-auctioneer who was by then a good friend. I explained the situation to him and it was no problem to have the painting accepted and catalogued before it arrived from San Francisco. On asking whether Stacy-Marks bought the artist at his auction, he confirmed that he did and also informed me that a couple of galleries in London were buying the artist.

The deal was done and by the middle of August I had the painting in my hands. Compared to the best of Dyf’s paintings I had seen it measured very well; the colours were fantastic, the composition superb and the view of Southern France magnificent. It was all I expected and more! It was the perfect painting for Dyf lovers, but was the fact that I had just bought it going to affect its selling? (The disappointing sales of Seago, Hofmann and Dawson were still haunting me, but the Montezin miracle encouraged me.)

The sale at Gorringes AQuctions will be on my Blog tomorrow, 29th June 2015!!

A subdued market allows me to snatch a “Real Dream Masterpiece”

Alexandra Exter

(Russian/Ukranian, [1882-1949] Avant-garde artist who embraced the movements of her day working both in Russia and Paris; among the top ten artists of Russia-Ukraine. Auction price range £10,000 – 1,100,000)

16th June 1988, Paris

The disastrous vibrations of the 1987 stock exchanges crash lasted until the summer of 1988. There was hope that something good would draw my attention during those eight months. I was praying that it would be something impressive and something that would prove to be a major investment for the future. The catalogues kept coming, the images did not attract me much, but then again, a dealer/investor in art is like a hunter, hunting for that elusive lottery-like painting. I never lost faith in the business and I always hoped to uncover that special gem at a bargain price.

I had purchased the Dyf for immediate trading but what about the long term? The catalogue from Paris was impressive, but it was mostly of French paintings. Then I stopped on a painting by Alexandra Exter. It was impressive, provenanced and well within my range at an estimate of £4000.

Where had I seen the name? Who was Exter? How many investors had heard of her or knew her auction performance in 1988? Four months earlier the artist did not ring a bell, when the same painting had sold at Sotheby’s Arcade Sales in New York for $3000. I had no interest in Exter at that time but this time round I had something more solid to rely on and started a frenzied research about her.

Yes, four months more experience and work is a long time in any line of work. Christie’s London had sold a small watercolour of hers for £8000 in March 1988. How many people knew about that? How many people had spent a significant amount of money on catalogues and meticulously wrote down the results or studied the artists and memorized names and results? How many people had spotted that sale in London and the upcoming sale in Paris at a smaller auction? Was accumulating knowledge by the day and month going to reward a studious, hard working person like myself? Would experience and up to date auction trading tilt the balance in my favour and enable me to invest in an extremely underrated artist?

The Exter was the painting I had been dreaming of and hoping to invest in. I had no doubt about it. It was of museum quality and size. I wanted it and was prepared to pay a high price for it, the highest I had ever paid. I went headlong into researching Alexandra Exter and her art. There were not too many sales records, but there was a lot of literature and exhibitions. My research showed her to be an artist in Kiev, in Moscow, in Paris and in Rome. More importantly she was considered one of the top six Russian avant-garde artists. She was indeed a big name with very little auction activity.

The question was not whether to buy, the question was how much to pay for the painting? I had a war chest of £18000 and that I was prepared to pay to acquire the work. In my view and my calculations any work of an artist selling for £8000 for a small watercolour can sell for that amount and more for a much larger oil painting. I did not consider the date of execution and the difference in style that important, which I had to at some point later. Further research at the main art libraries reinforced my conviction of the value of the artist and therefore of the work. I also calculated future Russian interest, as I believed Russia was a sleeping giant coming out of hibernation after nearly a century.

Business cannot be separated from the political circumstances of the world and your perceptions of what is happening in the world. They are inextricably linked.

The whole sum of £18000 was ready to invest in Exter. I felt the painting was a masterpiece by a master of nearly one hundred years ago, painted in a style the whole world was looking to buy: cubist, curvelinear, archaic, figurative!

Waiting for the day of the auction was impossible. With a little luck, I had a reasonable chance of buying a masterpiece, which I hoped would be the ultimate prize of my art venture. You might wonder why I did not jump on a plane or boat to go to France and bid on the spot for the work! I must have had other obligations. But I also knew that going back and forth to Paris would have cost me about three hundred pounds and there was no guarantee I would be allowed to buy the painting. Plus, if I did go and managed to buy the painting, I would not have been able to bring it back with me because of all the hateful French bureaucracy surrounding art exportation at that time.

The day of the sale arrived and I was glued to the phone. The French were anxious to sell rather than anxious to bid against me. It was a tough time for the art market and it was the end of the season.

One, two, three and the Exter was mine at £4,800 inclusive of commissions!

It was unbelievable. I was unsure whether to jump for joy or put my head in the sand and cry. Surely the French knew a couple of things about an artist who had spent nearly thirty years of her life in Paris. I was not sure any more, but then again I felt I was ahead of the market by a few months, if not one year with regards to auction sales and price movements on many artists. Sales in major auction rooms (September to August) appeared once a year in the Art Sales Indexes of the time in November/December of the following season. Importantly, there was no Internet in those days to check prices, sales and other vital pieces of information. Thus I concluded, to prop up my wavering confidence in the painting, the Exter result at Christie’s London was not known to the masses but only to those who followed the top market and sales.

I had invested nearly five thousand pounds in a painting sold at the worst time of the year and after the worst financial event for decades and at ten thousand pounds below my top estimate! June 1988 had been a very kind month to me with two promising purchases within one week of each other!

The summer of 1988 was busy enough, but more was to happen soon to lift my spirits and give me another push forward. The exciting world of art, my new world and new life, had more in store for me. My only wish and hope was endorsement of my plans and aspirations. Political events were pivotal in all my ideas.

I could see a sea of political and economic change in Eastern Europe and Russia, a fact that possibly few factored into their investments at that time.

Alexandra Exter, a great investment?

The arrival of a new investment is as exciting as the purchasing moment. I couldn’t wait to see the Exter! Unwrapping the painting I had such high expectations, but at first glance my spirits sank. I was not impressed. The flimsy, cheap frame, which I took away and binned, did not do justice to the painting. Years of neglect and accumulated dirt had taken the brightness and shine off the piece. My dream painting looked weird and incomprehensible – a cubist-futurist painting, which I found hard to interpret and live with. It looked out of place among the other paintings I had already invested in.

Regardless of this initial negative reaction, I was still satisfied with the investment and especially with the amount of money I had paid to acquire it. It was a bargain, I kept re-assuring myself. The Russians were coming out of the cold era that communism had driven them into. All the signs of a Russian revival were there. Perestroika was happening. The major auctions were holding important sales of Russian art and things looked very promising. I was reasonably hopeful and optimistic.

In March 1989, just nine months after the Exter purchase, Sotheby’s had a Russian sale that included a couple of Exter paintings. The estimates were dizzying and I was hoping they sold and sold well, as if they belonged to me. I was expecting good results, but not the ones that followed in the next few months and years! The sale at Sotheby’s was a tremendous success with an abstract Exter selling for £900,000 and a gouache of a ballerina for £150,000! Christie’s had a couple of very high results too, including one of £600,000. I went crazy with the thought that I had made the best investment ever just a few months earlier. Comparatively, I was sitting on a fortune, but is that how the art market and price of paintings work?

Dreams were streaming in my head; millions were in my thoughts. I felt I should show my property to experts in Russian art, which I did. I was no expert in that area, but did I have to be in order to estimate the value of my property? Experts in certain areas have in depth knowledge and knowledge that at times disappoints. The estimates were well below expectations and hopes! The maximum I heard was £15,000, which was incomprehensible to me. An offer from a private gallery to sell at £25,000 in late November of 1989 was rejected outright.

So, why the low estimates from the experts?

Apparently the Exter was a painting of 1925 rather than the early teens between 1910-1924 when Exter was working between Russia and Europe in better, more desirable styles and times. That was education for me, but I was not going to allow opinions to derail my dreams, was I? The painting had a good provenance, but there was no history and no literature to support a high value painting, as I felt the Exter was. I needed to put together something myself, if the painting was to become more valuable and more desirable.

Any painting of serious value must have:

· Provenance, which this painting had

· Literature, which the painting did not have

· Exhibitions’ history, which the painting did not have

As far as I was concerned the painting was of excellent quality. As soon as I had it cleaned and conserved, I believed once again in its value. How could I work on the two areas the painting was lacking? I had to exhibit it and have it included in a book or catalogue raisonné.

I was deep in the art business and if I did not know how to swim through this enterprise of mine, I had to learn the hard way. Things do happen, when you make them happen! I was determined and I got on to making things happen for the best painting I had ever invested in! Constant Art was to put Exter on the map or rather Alexandra Exter was to put ‘Constant Art’ and ‘Greeksinart’ on the map of art dealers with important paintings!

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