Theodore Ralli

(Greek, [1852 – 1909] Student of Gérôme who followed his master’s orientalist style and subject matter. Ralli is a highly successful artist whose work is collected by Greek and international investors. Auction price £6,000 – 600,000)

The hammam picture, hanging in the centre of the back wall in the most prominent position of the sitting room, outshone everything else in my eyes! Obviously the owners were aware of the importance of the painting, which dampened my spirits a little. However, the Ralli was what I wanted to buy and I set that as my target! My only fear was the price. In Greece private individuals usually open their mouths and blurt out a figure regardless of the actual value of the piece in question.

It was the first time I had found myself in a private home trying to buy art and was feeling quite nervous, although I didn’t show it. I was fully aware of my inexperience, but it was bliss being lost in that Aladdin’s cave. Back to the niceties of Greek conversation, back to tea talk and I am sitting on hot coals, dying to hear about the Ralli painting and their demands. I could not hold back any longer and I declared my interest with an open hand of cards. Who needed experience at such times? How amateurish was that!

“I am interested in that painting only,” I stated calmly, pointing to the Theodore Ralli painting. What a beautiful picture it was in its magnificent contemporary Victorian frame – I was magnetized! Portraying a hammam scene in Cairo with three nude figures of odalisques taking a bath, assisted by their servant, it was sensual, descriptive and exactly what a Ralli work should be. I hoped it was my lucky day!

“How much are you looking for the Ralli?” I asked quietly, scared to hear the figure.

“It will cost you eight million drachmas (£20,000),” stated the doctor.

That was bang on the mark and the painting’s auction value – I would lose money, buying at such a high price. I was keen to buy but not to waste money. It was too expensive for me, and really I was unable to buy the painting with the funds at my disposal. Disappointed and saddened, I got lost in their demand.

Could I negotiate? Could I bargain? It never occurred to me! It was too high a demand to bring down to my resources of about £10,000. Remember this is early 1989 and £10,000 was a significant sum of money, let alone twenty thousand! I thanked them for their hospitality and promised to call them later with my decision. I was happy with the two hours’ spent in the apartment but very unhappy about the asking price and the impossibility of buying the painting. I thought that to keep them guessing was a good policy. Standing at the doorway to leave, I changed my mind and told them frankly that I could not afford to pay that amount of money, but I would work on it and see what I could do.

They looked at each other unhappily. They gave the feeling that there was room for manoeuvre and negotiation, but how? I had no idea! Inexperience was the issue I had to deal with! Slow coach!

A colleague of mine will surely be interested in the painting, I thought. I will be back to have another chat with them soon enough. The rich gallery man, Mr T and a possible small introductory commission, if he decided to buy the painting, played at the back of my mind. I was sure he would show interest in the painting because of its quality and the importance of the artist in 19th century Greek art.

Working on commission in art is not a bad idea and it often leads to lucrative deals. To make at least 10% on such a deal would have covered my expenses to Athens with some money on top. Each trip to Athens cost me about £400 in those days.

Dreaming about getting something out of the morning’s work, I reached my associate’s gallery in Kolonaki. I walked leisurely towards the gallery thinking about the whole issue. Should I mention it to him or not? We talked for about fifteen minutes on this and that, how things were going, what he had bought and how he was always looking for good paintings by renowned Greek artists. One more last thought and then I began.

“Would you be interested in a very good painting by Jacques Theodore Ralli?”

“Yes, of course, I would love to have a Ralli painting, if it is genuine and good.”

· It is never a good idea to make your sources known to the opposition.

· Keep your contacts and sources as secret as possible and keep other dealers away from them.

However, in this case I had to introduce a bigger player in the hope he made the purchase and I collected a 10% introductory commission from the two parties. Our conversation lasted about an hour. I had other matters to attend to, but primarily I had to work hard for the sale of the Ralli. The gallery was about twenty minutes’ walk away from the vendors’ apartment. It was a pleasant walk to make and I had no issue in going up and down several times to complete a deal that potentially would make me a decent sum of money.

Optimistic and full of energy in those years, I had a strong burning desire for business and making money in art. I headed to the vendors’ flat without much hesitation or thought about the difficulties ahead, the twists and turns that lurk in any deal. Simply, I was inexperienced and I thought that a deal would be struck in a few moments, money would be handed on a plate and the whole matter would be over in a minute or two.

Soon enough I was at the vendors’ door where I announced enthusiastically, “I’ve found you a buyer. He is prepared to pay the eight million drachmas or £20,000 you are asking for.” Beaming and full of smiles with the news, arrangements were made for another visit together with Mr T. By 1:30 he and I were back in the vendors’ apartment.

I watched every move of that old fox. We went round the flat once and twice. He stopped periodically looking at things and pretended he was not interested in anything. He was as quiet as a mouse. Fifteen minutes later, he was at the door, thanking the hosts and stating firmly, “Mr Constant will deliver you my message later.”

We walked into the lift and he remarked convincingly,

· “Never state your intentions whenever you go to a house to see things.” (Oops!)

· “Pretend you will buy everything and make an offer for all the items on sale.”

· “Making an offer to buy everything does not reveal to them which item you are really after.”

That was lesson one from Mr T. It was taken in but how receptive a student was I? How many more lessons would he volunteer, I wondered? I found out soon after that the process of learning the tricks of buying privately was a long and bumpy one.

“Now, back to the Ralli painting,” he stated in military fashion. He was not called ‘The General’ for nothing, was he? “It’s a good painting and worth the money. Yes, I will make them an offer of eight million drachmas.”

“Should I tell them that?” I asked in a whisper somewhat scared of the sum, to which he nodded affirmatively. The £20,000 was the largest sum of money in one single purchase I had ever involved myself in. But it was not my money, was it?

Happy with the deal / promise, early the following morning I visited the vendors and gave them the news. They were happy and relieved to hear about the offer. After a couple of minutes of talking in private, they returned and declared in unison that they were delighted with the offer. I thanked them for their hospitality and quickly made my way to see the main person in the deal. Flying with excitement and smelling a small sum of money cheered me up. It was money made in a different way, an unexpected development, impossible to imagine a day earlier but so sweet to think about at the time.

Job done, deal finished, I hurried to see Mr T and give him the good news. On my way, I kept thinking how good the painting was and what a great deal it would be for both parties. I was a little jealous, but I had to admit to myself, no money no business.

Mr T was at the gallery, sitting and pondering and wondering at the world of art.

“It’s a deal,” I said. “They accepted your offer.”

“Very good,” was his crisp response, “I shall deal with the details tomorrow morning.”

It was all done and dusted very quickly as far as I could see. The two parties were happy with the deal and the middleman, myself, more than happy too. Was the business concluded or was I too naive and jumping the gun?

The following day, Tuesday, was a beautiful sunny morning and I felt on top of the world as I made my way to Mr T’s gallery for news and reassurance that everything was in place. I had negotiated a purchase on commission for the first time and a good sum of money was to be made. It was another first, another satisfying experience. The offer had been accepted and the rest remained with Mr T; arrange the money for the painting and my expected 10% commission from the buyer and vendors.

Soon I was on Patriarchou Ioakeim Street, the hub of Athenian high society and the location Mr T’s magnificent gallery. On entering the gallery, I knew that something was not right. Mr T was thoughtful, quiet as always but slightly worried and fidgeting. I had no time to waste, I had to push matters and so I came to the point straight away. That was the English way of doing business, but I was not in London. This was Athens and Greece, where different sets of codes and rules applied.

“Well, how is the deal going to be completed?” I asked timidly.

“I have thought about the whole issue overnight. If I pay eight million drachmas, I will find it hard to recover my money. My offer now is six million or £15,000. Please relay to the family my new offer and I am sure they will understand. This is still a very good offer.”

I saw the logic and understood his worries, but I was taken aback. I was inexperienced and hard bargaining was a new discipline to me. On asking how I was going to do that, he calmed me down with an assured gesture and head nod.

“Just tell them, they will know. It is still a significant offer, which nobody else will make. I am the only trader in Athens who can buy the painting right away. Nobody has such an amount of money in the market.” I took that in and thought about it for a minute. Nobody! That was some statement. He was absolute and categorical. He was convincing and perhaps he knew.

Disappointed with the new development, I walked hesitantly to the flat of the doctor with a heavy heart and full of apprehension. I had to do things quickly and this was the only loose end I had in hand before I returned to London. I was not looking forward to seeing the vendors and breaking such bad news to them. The door opened, the smiles were many, but soon I got to the point, sober and unhappy.

“My associate is making a new offer of six million. He apologizes, but he believes that this is still a good offer.” I was on unknown territory playing with people’s emotions and expectations. How did I get involved like that?

They remained speechless for a few seconds, smiles wiped off their faces. They looked at each other, they went very quiet and then the old lady spoke. “Do you think he will pay us the six million or will he change his mind again?” The old lady was shrewd and experienced in bargaining. She read my mind. I was unsure.

“I am not sure, but he is serious about the matter. He wants the painting, but he feels eight million is too much and he will be out of pocket. I am of the view that he will stand by his word.” The doctor kept quiet and then declared firmly, “Six million it will be, but within two days or no deal. We cannot wait much longer. You must tell him that.” I could understand the frustration and anger of the doctor, but I was surprised at the urgency of the situation.

Two days before I left for London, but I was not so sure about the deal any more. The dream of making commissions looked a little far away now. It was not a done deal any more. Back at the gallery, I was unable to hide my disappointment and feelings of failure. The messenger spoke and delivered the acceptance of the new offer, provided Mr T paid within two days.

He nodded, “Yes, of course. Everything should be completed by tomorrow. Tomorrow, we will sort it out.” I left the gallery hoping for a deal once again, but I was uneasy and unsure. I had no idea what was in Mr T’s mind, but it was obvious he wanted the painting. The issue was money, it seemed. Did he have the money or was he pretending to be the rich art man of Athens? His collection of Greek art was significant and well over five million pounds at that time, but what was his cash flow?

Early morning, the following day, I was at the gallery expecting to see the cash and the deal to be concluded. Before I opened my mouth Mr T was on the issue pressing like a hawk. He was attacking this time round and he was as sharp as razors.

“I am paying five million. It is still the price a dealer should pay and they should accept. Go and tell them and they will accept. I am sure. I will pay them the money tomorrow morning.” Sharp, crisp and determined! That was an order. I had no appetite to negotiate any more. He was not serious, or if he was, he did not have the money to complete the agreement. “I pay five million drachmas,” I kept repeating to myself. “Five million drachmas.” That was £12,500. “Go and tell them. I will take the money to them tomorrow morning, Thursday.”

That was tough talking, tough negotiating and bargaining, which I had never experienced before. Was that how business was done in Athens? How on earth would the vendors accept £12,500 from an initial demand of £20,000?

With a heavy step and ominous thoughts, I started walking towards the doctor’s flat. Deflated and disappointed with the new development, I was embarrassed to announce the new offer. This man was tough and stingy, I thought. But then again, he was a proper businessman and he was clearly a lot better at it than myself. I was too honest and much fairer than I should be! I was not tough enough or tight enough with my money. The road back to the doctor’s flat seemed miles and miles in spite of the sunny, beautiful day. Walking slowly and taking my time preparing my words for the unfortunate old couple, I stopped at the lights. Red!

Red hit me in the face, dead centre of the forehead. Inspiration! What inspiration? No warnings, no thoughts of it earlier, it just hit me in the face and… wake up man, your chance is here! What chance? Which chance? You slow coach! Slow coach! Are you so stupid?


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