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The best advise for any new collector or art trader I can give is

” buy at the best time at low price, sell at the optimum time”

Unfortunately I have never managed to sell well ever though I bought great paintings. My problem was always liquidity. I had limited funds, I could not hold onto the good art and very good paintings I bought and therefore sold at the wrong time and low prices.

This is the story of one of those purchases that happened after the disaster of 1987.


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


16th June 1988, Paris

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)

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 £18,000 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  £18,000 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 £4800 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 had factored into their investments at that time.


Alexandra Exter, a great investment?

The moment of 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.




Alexandra Exter   Cubist Composition

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 years 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!

The story of this painting will continue next week!!


Peter Constant

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