Keep Some Good art For The Future

I Was Always in a Rush!!

In thirty years of trading art between auction, I had great opportunities to invest in major artists without paying a fortune. Today, I post one small example that cost nearly nothing but sold quickly for a quick profit. Of course that policy has changed now but it is too late. No such bargains are easy to come by these days.

Aivazovsky – A dream drawing I lament about

5th December 1986, Phillips Marylebone, London – 1st May 1987, Sotheby’s London

In the 1980s art prices were low compared to today, but money was also a lot less. Auction houses were known, but not everybody could access their sales and their results as today. The Internet was unheard of and nearly all the business was done through direct advertisement, word of mouth and catalogues. Thus, few could trade art the way I was doing thirty years ago.

Living in London was a great advantage and a blessing as it was just about the biggest art trading capital of the world. The auction tradition was well established in the city and plenty of auction rooms were selling good quality items at a discount and a good discount at that. The year 1986 was coming to a close and I could not but feel happy and content with the events of the year and wealth accumulated, whether that was in the form of experience, money or art stock.

Phillips on Marylebone Road, a small saleroom of Phillips Auctioneers, was one such small auction that I frequented. This room was manned by a couple of people who knew very little about art and sold whatever came their way for next to nothing. One could buy really good art cheaply. In one word, bargains!

Did I buy the Toulouse-Lautrec drawing for £1200 in these rooms, which a year or two later sold at Christie’s for £64,000? No, I did not, because it was too expensive for me to gamble on! As you must understand, even though I was acquiring knowledge quickly, I was still far from being an experienced dealer/trader. Spending £1200 on a very small drawing was too much of a risk. There was no value for money. That was my safety valve! No guarantees at that auction too.

However, I did buy great looking paintings from Phillips with very little money over the years. Some of them were by known artists and so it made great sense to invest in them, while others were by unknown hands. I still own some of the latter. I consider it unwise to sell them because they might turn out to be important artists in the future. Regretfully, I sold some of the former and the story that follows is a painful one for me. I know that an investor is like a nomad who always looks for new pastures, greener ones. How better can I describe myself in this business?

Ivan Aivazovsky

(Russian, [1817-1900] Russia’s most important marine artist famous for his seascapes as well as his topographical views of major cities such as Istanbul and Venice. Auction price range £20,000- 3,000,000 plus)

The work was a sketchy drawing of a ship in distress. It was catalogued loosely as ‘drawing with indistinct signature’. As far as I was concerned the Russian signature was as clear as Greek. Greek is so close to the Russian alphabet. I knew who the artist was. It was the signature of the most important and most famous Russian marine artist. The drawing was clearly signed to those who knew his work and I had seen several of his paintings. I needed no research, no art index sales and prices.

Luck in the saleroom always helps, but basic knowledge is always essential. If nobody else recognised the drawing as by Aivazovsky, I would be making a tidy sum of money on resale soon enough. There were ten, fifteen familiar faces in the saleroom, but nobody could have recognized the signature, as at £75 the drawing was mine! I was happy of course, as this promised a great return, but not too impressed by the drawing – a small, dark wash. Masterly of course, but I liked pretty, colourful things by the end of 1986.

Investing and reinvesting was the policy and so, there was no waiting, no procrastinating, or thinking for the long-term future. Money pressures always at my door, I consigned the drawing with Sotheby’s and on the 1st of May 1987 it sold for £750 as by Ivan Constantine Aivazovsky. For 1987 that amount and that return was great. How could a tenfold return be sneered at? How could I be unhappy about such an event? I was absolutely thrilled with the result. My expectation was 50-100% percent. To get such a return was fantastic! But, why did I need to sell something that cost me so little?

· I was buying too many pieces and I had to sell the best! Not the best strategy, but I was at the early stages of my adventure in art.

· I was an apprentice! I was learning the trade and in the process made costly mistakes.

· I could not foresee the future and the trends to follow as my investment time span was six months to a year, not ten and twenty years, which should have been the case

Similar drawings by Aivazovsky sell well in the thousands, tens of thousands today. It was not the only mistake I made with Russian works of art. How long did it take me to make the worst mistake of my life? A few more years! I learned innumerable things in this trade and one I am trying to adhere to now is:

Keep the good items or a few of the good items for the future! Whether I have kept a few good ones for myself is the million-dollar question.

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