I had the fortune to invest in some very promising art back in the 1980s. The time was right, the opportunities appeared and I was hot on the market that returned me good money quickly. Among the painters i invested in was the German artist A.R.PENCK.



A.R. Penck (German, [1939- ] A prominent contemporary artist who excels in monochromatic art with messages inspired by ancient worlds and symbols. Auction price range £4000-200,000 plus)

The A.R. Penck work was huge, but that was positive for the US market I was buying it for. Painted on thick carton and and in mixed media it looked interesting in the black and white illustration of the catalogue. I was in the dark as to its meaning, but this was a straight trade and money exercise. There was no APEL (authenticity, provenance, exhibitions, literature) information on the work at that moment, but that didn’t worry me. Shouldn’t a ten-year old painting have a history? My plan was simple. If I bought the Penck, Christie’s had to provide me with a provenance at least. If I did not get the provenance for a ten-year old work, then I was not paying, simple and straight. Such a contemporary painting had to have a history of ownership, a provenance, if nothing else! Trusting a major auction is important, but the Harpignies story taught me plenty a lesson. Provenance and authenticity!

Provenance is a must! Exhibitions a great bonus! The information I had on the artist spoke of a painting worth close to $15,000 in New York. What I had to do was simple. Buy in Rome, have the work shipped to New York where prices of Penck were very robust, arrange for its sale over the phone and wait for the sale proceeds to come at the end of the year. What an easy plan? Could it work? Would it work? It was not the plan of a genius! It was so simple, and yet it looked as if I were the only one up to it or were others doing the same? The easier it looked, the more puzzling I considered it. Planning a purchase and then a sale is full of possible minefields. In this case all went to plan. I bid on the phone and bought the painting at exactly the sum I had earmarked. All in all the painting cost me £4700 but the burning question at that point was “ have I bought another fake?” I was apprehensive and worried after the Harpignies adventure and paying five thousand pounds for another fake was not out of the question. I had to have proof that the painting was authentic. When did I part with my money? No, not straight away! Christie’s had to wait for payment this time round. I was to play the game properly and within the rules. As soon as I received a statement to pay, I sent Christie’s a letter in which I stated that I needed a provenance of the work, as it was possible that the work was a fake. In less than a month I received confirmation that the painting was provenanced by Michael Werner Gallery in Cologne, Penck’s agents, and Mario Ameglio Gallery in Naples, where it had been exhibited.

The provenance and exhibition history made a big difference to the value of the painting and its chance of selling well in New York. Had that information been included in the sale in Rome, I feel I would have had to pay more to acquire it. The lessons and experience of the fake Harpignies had come into play. It was compensation time, it was pay off time. By the time I had paid and made arrangements for shipping the painting to New York, I had already missed the autumn sales there. That was a blessing, as the Stock Exchanges crash in 1987 would have destroyed the painting’s selling price that autumn. The painting sat for eight months in the warehouse of Christie’s in New York, but by then I had no worries about keeping a painting for a year or two. The Penck work was entered for sale in Christie’s Contemporary Art Part II in May 1988 by which time the market had recovered slightly from the October 1987 crash. I was hoping for a good sale, which fortunately resulted in $14,000. That was £7400 net, after deductions of all expenses including shipping. That left me with a net profit of about £2,700 for the investment or 63% over a year. The return was very satisfactory and this transaction showed me that there was another option to trading within one’s city and country. I was learning, I was acquiring experience and I was being rewarded too.

The lessons from the Penck trade were serious:
• Ask for important information, APEL, before you make an investment.
• Contemporary art should have a good line of provenance otherwise authenticity questions might arise.
• Trade between countries without leaving the comfort of your own house and office.

I could see back in 1987/88 that it was possible to make a living, make serious money from home, without travelling anywhere. All I needed were catalogues, sales indexes, current auction prices to research possible purchases and a phone and fax. Today working from home has become quite commonplace and much easier with the Internet revolutionising trade of any kind. It was a great way of doing business! Interesting, challenging and very rewarding! Could I carry on like that was the question or were there more crashes and financial upheavals to come? The end of the 1988 season was much better than the beginning of it in October 1987. Escaping the crash unhurt and still standing was a major achievement! Could I be lucky further down the year and years to come?

Why am I taking this issue and this painting today to discuss something that we all know is important but circumstances do not allow us to follow? Why Penck of all the other artists? the story is useful and the result of 200,000 for a work of his the other day which was much inferior to the one described above prompted me to duel on the issue:

If you can afford to keep an investment longer, do that. In art you enjoy it and the likelihood the returns will be better. The Penck I invested in and sold immediately was much bigger and the content of it much better! Many regrets over the years but the immediate returns were very good and happy at the time.

Peter Constant

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