Deal or No Deal?

Lucien Potronat

(French, [1889- ] Well known for his magnificent views of the Côte D’Azur in Southern France and mostly collected in England. Auction price range £500-3000)

In June of 1987 I bought a beautiful View of the Côte D’Azur by Lucien Potronat at Phillips Marylebone, London for just £125. It was a painting for the house and my own joy and enjoyment. It spoke about home, it spoke about my life and it was a bargain. More importantly, it was provenanced by Stacy-Marks, Eastbourne England, at some time in the past, as the label on the reverse of the painting indicated.

I knew that Stacy-Marks were actively buying the artist because I had seen them bidding and buying Potronat works at Lewes in East Sussex. It was no secret! All good traders, should have known that or similar facts about rich galleries. Could Potronat assist me to raise the funds I needed in a private sale?

Twenty days to go! The pressure to pay the Dawson was on and gradually increasing as the days went by. It was three thousand pounds, a very serious sum of money in 1987. I had no such sum in the bank as everything had been invested in Penck, Roubaud, Girardet, Montezin, Fassianos and other artists, which were to be sold at auction later in the year.

I loved the Med View of Lucien Potronat and had intended to keep the painting for the family’s enjoyment and for the future. However, when in need of money, you need to sell what is the easiest and the quickest. If you own stocks you sell your stocks, if you own art you sell your art and selling art privately to a gallery was the quickest way for me.

I knew the painting was worth a couple of thousand pounds because smaller size paintings of the artist were selling close to six hundred pounds at auction. Could I sell the Potronat privately to Stacy-Marks? Would they be interested? How would I make up the missing money even if I sold the painting to that gallery? I would still be short of a few hundred pounds and I had only twenty days to pay Bonhams.

Stacy-Marks was one of those family galleries with old stock and shrewd old shoes running the business. My call to them was short and to the point. On mentioning the name Potronat, they immediately asked to see the painting with a view to buying it, if we came to an agreement. No promises, but that was an encouraging initial contact. I could not mess up this transaction, as I was desperate for the money. It was tricky, it was the first time I was selling to a gallery, but there is always a first time.

I drove to Eastbourne that Saturday with a million thoughts circling in my mind. Would they buy at the right price? Would they throw me out? What would happen with the Dawson? Would Bonhams cut me out as their client, if I failed to pay in time? Keep cool, do not panic and do not show anxiety and worry. Play your cards right and everything will be fine, I kept telling myself. Much harder to do than say!

On entering the impressive gallery in the heart of Eastbourne, a thriving town on the south coast of England, I was struck by the high quality of the art on the walls. I introduced myself and soon enough it was show time. They liked the painting. They surely did. It was one of theirs. “How much do you want?” inquired the old fox, Stacy-Marks. He was the one calling the shots and there was a bright sparkle in the old man’s eyes. He knew the business much better than his sons and myself. The evidence was there to see.

“I am selling the painting for £2000. It’s a lovely painting and worth every penny.” Cool and composed, I made my case. No nerves, no worries and very sure of myself. Where did that come from? This was supposed to be a first time!

“Yes,” the old man responded, “it is worth that much, but we are dealers and we want to make a little bit of money too. I think a fair deal is £1500.” I rejected the offer as too little in the hope of making a little more. Back and forth, hesitation here and there and the compromise was £1800 on the spot. They were happy with the purchase – I was delighted with it, to say the least. A cheque of £1800 was handed to me; signed and rubber-stamped. It was an immense achievement as a first time!

With an £1800 cheque in my pocket, I felt like flying back to London. I was on top of the world! Four years after I had started dealing in art, I could sell directly to galleries at a good profit. Do you call a return of 1500% only a good profit! The trip back to London was like a minute. I was so proud of myself. It was such a satisfying experience and a moneymaking one too. I was full of beans and convinced that I wouldn’t have a problem paying for the Dawson. But I was still short of about £1000, still a significant sum. What else could I sell or buy for immediate re-sale? Success whets the appetite and you want more of the same.

Luck was on my side all the way! Thank you!

Fiction is fine, but the art trading events in these memoirs are better than fiction at times. Here I am recounting these unbelievable events that occurred at the right time and the right moment. How was that possible? I still wonder and still ask! Who and what was moving the pieces and making events happen? Luck? Surely something was intervening on my behalf. I was moving my little finger too, but something else was at play and the Ancient Greek saying is appropriate here,

“ Sin Athena kai heira kinei”. “Move your little finger, if you wish luck to assist you.”

Bargain at my doorstep can pay for the Dawson

Gabriel Deschamps

(French, [1919- ] Twentieth century artist of French landscapes, well collected and popular at auctions in the UK. Auction price range £500-3000)

I was back in London that Saturday hoping that something else might happen quickly and the Dawson problem would be solved. Sunday for me was viewing of various auctions in two or three different places in London. That included North West Auctions in North London where from time to time the odd worthwhile painting appeared in their weekly auctions and nearly always at a bargain price. On that Sunday in August 1987 I was not expecting anything miraculous after the Saturday miracle at Eastbourne. A second miracle within days was too much to ask.

Nevertheless, Lady Luck was looking after me from above and I was moving around to make things happen. Covering nearly half the display wall of the auction was a huge impressive landscape with a style and colouring that was immediately recognizable to me. On approaching I was spellbound. There it was, signed to the bottom right G. Deschamps or Gabriel Deschamps. The painting looked magnificent, fresh, clean and straight from a home. That was the possible solution to the problem called Montague Dawson, but could I buy it at that ridiculous estimate? Would I be going back to Stacy-Marks again the following weekend? Deschamps was another one of his artists!

Monday evening and it was auction time. My hope was to buy the painting for nothing as only experienced traders knew who Deschamps was and Finchley auctions did not attract too many of those. I was sure of that. I waited patiently and quietly. Cool, cold and calculating, the hunter took aim hiding behind the large items of furniture. I wanted nobody to see me, to smell my presence. The situation was grave; I wanted the Dawson problem solved that very night.

The loud voice of the auctioneer still echoes in my ears. Loud, crisp and clear. Why didn’t he become a singer? Great voice for that profession! Deschamps is in view and up for sale. “Thirty pounds I have,” he shouted out. Easy mister, I need a bargain, do not wake them up. “Thirty-two, thirty-four, thirty-six, thirty-eight … forty-five I have and I am selling at forty-five,” he boomed. The hammer came blissfully down and I became the owner of the Deschamps shy of fifty pounds, which included commissions. I can still see his beaming face. However, all the smiles were mine!

I walked out of the crammed auction to take a breath of fresh air. I could not digest the event. I could not believe that such conspiracies of luck happened to normal humans. How could I be so lucky and privileged? Lady Luck, my protectress, had provided me with another opportunity to raise the remaining sum for the Dawson painting. Luck had been good to me again, but it was also invaluable knowledge of art that enabled me to seize this opportunity.

Forty-nine pounds and a few pence I paid that very night and off I set with the beautiful Deschamps. What did I buy? The canvas, the paints, the frame or what? It was a ridiculously low price, but hey, that was auctions for you with the great opportunities offered to all.

My second trip to Eastbourne was as successful as the first one – no hassles and no arguments at £1500. I had struck another great deal with the old Stacy-Marks and solved an immense problem hanging over my head. Four trades within a month, under such circumstances, were not only hugely rewarding but also didactic.

· Sell to gulleries privately even if the profits might be slightly less.

· Knowledge of the stock of galleries is important.

· Daredevil investments might cause serious money problems and lead to litigation, if one fails to pay.

· Luck is an important ally, but knowledge is a battle winner.

Specialist theme sales are preferred

Three agonizing weeks it took me to fund the Dawson, but I enjoyed having it up on the wall in the meantime. I loved the subject, the style and colours. But it was not destined to stay there. The artist’s work was selling extremely well at auction. I needed a return on my investment so the Dawson was entered for Sotheby’s Marine sale of May/June 1988. I considered a specialist sale much better than a general one for several reasons:

· Serious collectors of that type of art frequent such auctions and prices climb higher, especially if an item is unique.

· Art unique to a nation in a specialist sale always sells better than in a mixed sale.

I consigned the painting with Sotheby’s in February 1988 with an estimate of £6-8000 and a reserve of £6000, reasonably hoping for a sale close to £10,000. The reserve guaranteed me a 75% profit.

The Dawson looked great in the catalogue. Unfortunately three similar watercolours by the same artist plus several oil paintings were also included in the same sale. I did not mind the oils, but the watercolours were an issue. Too many of the same thing in a sale was a disadvantage. Had I known that, I would have delayed the sale.

The watercolour sold for £6000 at the reserve. I was hugely disappointed, but still relieved that it had sold and returned me about £2500 profit, a good result, taking into account the after-effects of the October Exchanges crash. And more seriously, the Dawson had been a purchase with the profits from two other investments, so essentially it was all profit! Celebrate, cross yourself and say a big thank you amateur investor!

Making about 75% profit in less than a year was great! Selling the Penck in New York at the same time and making about £2500 profit or 50% also added to the beauty of dealing in art. Trading paintings of £50-8,000 value was very good business, since the returns were on average 100% and in certain special cases over 1000%. Did I carry on with that strategy or did I mess up? The years 1985-1988 were proving to be dream years with insignificant losses, if any at all, to major profits. Could it get any better? Would it get any better?

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