Never Give Up in Spite of Circumstances


24th March 2015

Any human activity can be used in another as a lesson or an example. The aim of this entry today is to make it abundantly clear to all my readers that Giving Up is not an option. Never give up on anything!

The last desperate act! Will any major collectors arrive?

Eleven o’clock. Nothing doing, silent telephones, nobody through the door, everything quiet and literally I could hear the clock ticking the seconds and minutes away. Then frustrated and choking for fresh air and inspiration, I got up from the chair, I walked purposely outside the gallery and looked at the two display windows. There were three very attractive paintings inviting passers-by, but nobody was drawn to walk in. Why? Why? Why? What could I do? What was missing? My mind was working, but up to that moment there was no inspiration, no ‘Eureka’!

Thinking hard, my brain super charged, I mumbled. Yes, yes!! If not anything new, at least it might attract one or two passers-by! I picked up the marker and slashed the prices on the three paintings in the window by 50%. Yes, it was a desperate measure, but I had nothing to lose as most paintings were on a 200% profit margin and, if unsold now, would be in the stockroom for at least a couple of years collecting dust and costing me a fortune in high interests month after month.

Clock ticking away, minutes and hours dying away. Time passed. Twelve o’clock came and went but still nobody to talk to, nobody to show round the gallery. One o’clock – my desperation was immeasurable. I kept looking outside the gallery in order to forget my misery and troubles. I was going down with every minute ticking away. It was about 1.30pm.

Vasilis Mastoras, Still Life of Peaches, Part of today’s collection

The middle-aged couple looked in the window. They chatted for a minute or so and then walked in! The well-heeled couple was discussing the still life in the window, stopping my suicidal thoughts. I welcomed them in handing them a catalogue nervously and silently prayed for the miracle to happen.

Letting art lovers alone to enjoy art is a must and so I retired and left them to view and discuss the paintings. After a few minutes I approached them and offered my services.

“Yes, we like many paintings, but our budget is only £2,000.” I left them to look around once again and then they asked to buy the two paintings in the window, one by Vasilis Mastoras, a still life painter, and the other by George Gogle, an English still life artist. The total was £800 with the profits a negligible 100% on both paintings, but that was manna from heaven at that moment! A penny of profit was extremely welcome let alone four hundred pounds.

There is still hope, I thought quickly. Oxygen found its way to my lungs and some money into my empty pockets to relieve the heavy burden of failure. Then, unexpectedly, the couple turned and looked at a lovely still life of an artist I knew little about, but it was punchy, beautifully framed and in my view cheap. Priced at £1500 in the catalogue, the Jan De Ruth painting was a bargain. It was a bargain for the buyers at £1200, the last price I offered, which they accepted happily. I handed it to them with great relief and collected another £1200 that thankfully took care of my rents at the gallery in one go. What a beautiful, colourful still life of roses that was! Measuring a sizeable 125cm x 65cm, its superb frame alone was worth £500. The deal was done, the £2000 were down and I set about wrapping the paintings quickly, sighing heavily in relief and feeling a million tons lighter and happier. That done in a flash the paintings were in the Jaguar of the couple and hope revisited my tormented, desperate soul.

Thank God! Nearly out of jail! What an escape from serious money headaches! What a sale and what a turnaround! Optimism and expectation for something more reappeared. Could I hope for more? Plenty of business hours to go! There was Sunday too!

By now it was two-thirty in the afternoon, a bright, beautiful afternoon. Spring was in the air, colourful flowers dominated the square in front of the gallery and people were out and about shopping and being sociable in spite of the gloomy economic situation. The three sales I had already made helped me to breathe and feel a little better, worry a little less and hope for more in the few hours I had left that Saturday and Sunday. Perhaps someone from above was looking after me after all, I wondered. Being superstitious and one who believes in the intervention of powers from above, I attributed everything to them! No sooner had I finished packing the paintings of the English couple and caught my breath than the phone rang. I was expecting a friend or my wife at the other end.

“I am Mrs LM. Will it be OK to visit the exhibition in about half an hour?”

That was the voice I had been hoping to hear the whole of the week, the wife of a renowned Greek collector and supporter of anything Greek. The phone calls had started yielding results. I had spoken to Mrs LM. three times begging her to come and see the show. Perhaps it was the reward I had been waiting for and felt I deserved. The content of the show was nearly 100% Greek art.

Apprehensive, anxious and sitting uncomfortably in expectation, I prepared myself. These were important people and the kind of collectors I hoped the show would enable me to meet and make clients of, if not now, in the future. It seemed as if the second leg of my targets was going to be achieved. It was a great feeling but would it also be translated into sales?

The well-groomed couple walked into the gallery within twenty minutes of the call. Making their acquaintance, I welcomed them, handed them catalogues and allowed them space to walk round the gallery a couple of times. Going round slowly, they looked at everything, discussing works and examining carefully details and prices. However, their main interests were in the area of the expensive paintings with Exter, Maleas, Page, Economou, Parthenis, Ghika, Tsoclis to mention but a few.

I took my time to approach them and invited them to a drink and questions about the paintings. Mr. LM. was a gentleman in all his actions and words. The lady was equal to her husband’s polite manner and bearing. High society people but at the same time down to earth and friendly. They looked very comfortable discussing the merits of several paintings and were very knowledgeable, I soon realized!

Mrs LM. started first. “We like the Zenetzis painting of Nicosia and the Archbishop’s Palace. This takes us back years and years and reminds us of our romance and life in Cyprus some thirty years ago. The late Archbishop Makarios had us engaged there. We would like to buy that painting.”

“Great,” I added. “I am glad you like something of Zenetzis’ work.” There were some twenty paintings of his in the show. It was only £400, but that was a good beginning. Somehow I felt they were looking more seriously at other more important paintings and thus I eagerly expected more to follow. At last, a couple of collectors who seemed prepared to spend some money.

Then Mr. LM. walked over to the major works and stated firmly, “I would like to purchase the work of William Page of the Acropolis. I like it. We have a collection of the artist and this will fit in nicely with what we have of the artist.”

That went smoothly but I had to make something clear to him before we proceeded to money issues. With no hesitation and for many reasons, I stated clearly, “The inscription ‘Page’ on the watercolour is added.”

“I know,” smiled Mr.LM. happily.

That was something I did not expect from him, but I was so relieved I had told him. Better be honest and straight about something than hide the truth. That never pays in any situation or event but more so when it comes to art. I was always straight with my sales to everybody and what I did at that moment was not unusual.

I liked the couple. I guess they liked me too. I closed the deal at £1200 for both paintings and I can assure you, I was younger by fifty years by the end of that hour. All the pressure of the past week disappeared, all my fears and anxiety vanished and I was on top of the world once again. Remember that the Page work was bought at Christie’s South Kensington counter for only sixteen pounds, yes sixteen pounds. The frame cost £20 and with those two small sales, I was definitely out of jail.

Could I make some profits after all? Could I sell some more paintings? All of a sudden things had turned around, and now I was expecting the unimaginable to happen.

Having a drink and talking about art is always a pleasure for collectors. We talked about the whole show and especially the top lots. We discussed the Exter and the merits of the work as well as the artist. Mr. LM was apprehensive about the Parthenis drawings (although they had been bought from the artist’s son). Incidentally, they did sell at Sotheby’s and Christie’s a couple of years later for more than I had priced them at the exhibition. The Economou portrait was of particular interest to Mr. LM but no offer was made and there was no hint of a possible purchase at that time.

Then Mr. LM. added, “Will you bring the paintings to the house next Saturday, when you have time?”

“No problem,” I responded calmly. I was dying to see his house and his collection!

“We will talk further about the major paintings you have here, he added. “I might be interested in one or two of the important paintings. Come to the house and we will talk further. We have to attend another event at four and time is running out now.”

Departing, the couple remarked how rich the exhibition was and how they liked what they saw. They were very polite but also well into art so their appreciation of the whole show made me feel very good. I knew already they were genuine and that they meant what they said. I also felt that I had won the trust of a client and perhaps made a new, important client. With another £1200 in the till and perhaps more to come from these collectors, I sat down for a breather. I was breathing comfortably because that £3,200 had made the difference between an unpalatable loss and a small profit.

That Saturday in May 1992 was meant to be full of happy memories and surprises. As soon as those two lovely people walked out of the gallery another good friend walked in. Literally minutes separated the departure and arrival of the two parties. My accountant knew about the show, my art activities and perhaps the company wanted to support me because I was a client of theirs. Could I sell a couple of paintings to them? That would really boost my finances! The young partner in the firm walked in alone. As always a happy man with a broad smile and kind words, he walked around admiring the paintings on display. He stopped from time to time at Zenetzis’ work. I approached quietly and we started talking about the Cyprus paintings of Zenetzis.

It was obvious he was interested in the homeland’s paintings. Finally he chose three paintings by Zenetzis, two of Cyprus and one of Corfu, to the total of £2500. They were great pieces of high quality, bright, beautiful and very accomplished impressionist art, which still decorate the offices of his business premises. They bring a distant home in the Mediterranean to the place of work. The masters of such art sell in the millions. I was providing impressionist, quality art by a very good artist at very low prices. Zenetzis’ work was not just a fancy of mine that started in a small gallery in Athens in 1988. He was also an artist whose work was admired by art lovers in Greece and elsewhere, irrespective of their nationality.

It was about 4:30 pm on that glorious Saturday in May. The day that had started so ominously had ended unexpectedly well. I had achieved, to some degree, what I had set out to do about six months earlier. However, the Exter had not attracted that elusive major collector! The major pieces in the show had not attracted any buyers. That was disappointing, but was it premature to moan and complain? Could I sell any of them still or would it be better if I did not?

Wrapping up the exhibition in high spirits, the Cretans arrive!

Sunday was the last day of the exhibition at Hallam Fine Art Gallery. I was in a very good mood after the sales of Saturday. A few thousand pounds had meant the salvation of the business and kept the dream of riches alive. Much relief, satisfaction and newly found confidence that cannot be put in words followed that Saturday.

It was impossible to forget that about nine years earlier I had entered the world of art not owing any money to banks and credit cards. By 1992 I had come a long way with a large inventory of fine, valuable art and a new trade learned through trial, error and hard work, but my bank account was in the red by a huge sum. I had to keep the bank happy and I had to make a penny’s profit too, if I was to feel happy myself. It was a fine edge between success and failure! I knew that the investments in Greek art had helped to steady the ship but to rely solely on Greek art was never the plan or idea.

The expectation on that Sunday was to sell another couple of paintings as it was the last day of the exhibition and it is a Greek custom to “leave it to the last minute in order to get a bargain.” I had done that at auction myself and it had worked. There was every reason for others to do the same. People had called about paintings asking for more information, but had not yet appeared at the gallery and so there was a glimmer of hope. Perhaps I could sell a few more posters of the Exter work (priced conservatively at £5 each), I joked to myself.

Sunday morning and it was very quiet. Reading the newspaper kept me busy for a while, but my mind was on sales, more sales. It would have been gratifying to finish off the exhibition with a few more pounds in my pocket. I kept dreaming, but then again I am a dreamer. It was a dream for somebody like me to mount an exhibition worth close to half a million pounds in 1992!

Dreaming and hoping, time passed. It was about one o’clock when the young couple walked in talking and gesturing purposefully. They had come in to view the show before and had expressed an interest in a beautiful painting by Vasilis Zenetzis. Revisiting was a good sign of serious interest. The husband was from Crete and he was the one making the decisions. Cretans stand by their word, they wear the trousers and usually hold the purse too. I was to find out soon enough whether that was the case or not.

I welcomed them back and they immediately walked up to the Goule painting by Zenetzis, their compatriot. The image of Goule was 100 x 70 cm. It was one of the biggest Zenetzis works carrying a price tag of £2,000. The castle was superb, the boats and figures very well painted and one did not have to be in Crete to be there. Crete was present in London, in this painting, gratifying emotions and senses. It was an impressive, magnificent painting standing very well alongside masters such as Exter, Parthenis, Ghika and Maleas. You might think I am exaggerating, but the future is going to judge such statements more accurately, I am sure. The present and past are harsh on artists but the future nearly always vindicates them with interest.

They stared, they admired, they talked and finally the young man approached me hesitantly but also decisively. Determination was in his face and eyes. His desire shone through, even though he looked a bundle of nerves. His voice came out loud and clear. Nobody else was in the gallery.

“I would like to buy the painting of Goule, but I am asking for a better price, a much better price. Would you sell it to me for one thousand pounds?”

He was so much at pains to tell me his offer. I could see on his face the anxiety and untold wish to own a piece of Crete. It was sincere, genuine, but also upsetting for me. He had put me in a very difficult position. The one thousand pounds offer was not the amount I was looking for. It was just too low, but at the same time I really felt the struggle he was in. I put myself in his shoes. I appreciated the desire and love he felt for his birthplace and I honestly melted. I could let the painting go at that price for the sake of helping a genuine art lover, but Greeks of the diaspora are patriotic people and I gathered he was no exception. I banked on that and I hoped to win.

We kept talking, he kept asking for that favour and while all these friendly exchanges carried on, it was as if we had known each other for years. I kept feeling guilty and greedy in comparison to the genuine desire of this man to acquire a landmark of his motherland, even if it was on a piece of canvas.

“I am a poor driver. I live in a rented flat, but I fell in love with this painting. Please sell it to me for £1,000 and I shall be a very, very happy man,” he pleaded. The cost of Vasilis’ work was about £700 and so with a little more effort and persuasion I yielded.

“Give me £1200 pounds and the painting is yours,” I stated. That just covered all my costs of framing, exhibiting and transporting the painting from Athens. I made very little profit. The cash came out immediately. The little profit was barely 50% but £300 towards all the expenses was much more preferable than having the painting collecting dust at home.

Now, after so many years, I regret selling one of Zenetzis’ best paintings ever, but in business you sell and buy and carry on. I was an active collector/ investor. I needed the turnover to satisfy my creditors and my own avarice to acquire art, new art. I was a mad collector of art in spite of the raging recession and the terrible state of my finances! Invest on the down and sell on the up was the strategy!

Time had passed and it was close to 2.30pm when a tall, well-dressed man in his late thirties walked in. I introduced myself, and gave him time to view the paintings. He walked and looked, stopped and started, but I felt he was after a particular picture as he kept staring at the “Rethymnon” work of Zenetzis. This was a beautifully painted harbour view with cafés pulsating with life.

Could this man be another Cretan? He looked like one to me. Tall, dark-skinned but no moustache. It took very little time for the man to declare his interest in the painting, which was finally purchased at £500. Still looking for something more, the Greek collector stopped at a small watercolour of a Greek Old Lady feeding the fireplace or spinning the wheel, which he gladly bought at £250. It was all profit for me, as that watercolour was part of the treasure box acquired at North Finchley! What a treasure box that was (more on this later)! Talking and discussing art, I found out that the man was a great collector of anything Greek, and yes he was from Crete working in the shipping industry. He had made my day with the two small purchases, and the exhibition was nearly over by the time he left the gallery an hour later.

That was the second painting of Crete sold to a Cretan and painted by a Cretan. It was the eighth painting of Vasilis selling at the exhibition out of twenty odd exhibited. I was happy with that, as he deserved the appreciation and recognition collectors gave to his work. Zenetzis was now on the map of Greek artists exhibiting and selling in London. I was slowly and gradually forming a collection of his art while selling some of his paintings at low introductory prices. Bit by bit his paintings had brought in a total of £5,500. That was a respectable sum under the circumstances. I felt the future looked promising for Zenetzis and that being a contemporary artist there were better days ahead for him. But was that just my biased view rather than an objective assessment?

Those were the last two sales at the gallery but I had serious hopes of selling some more after the event. I had put myself on the map of Greek collectors, one of whom admitted to me after visiting the show, “Where have you been all these years?” Yes, I had kept quiet for too long. Now I had made myself known to Greek collectors and investors, and perhaps I was to see the rewards of all the hard work during the last ten years coming my way. Selling to collectors is another dimension to business and I had to explore that in addition to auctions. Zenetzis had proved a major seller in the exhibition. The disappointment, the only disappointment really, was the fact that I did not manage to sell an important painting. Had I managed that, the whole event would have been a major success!

I was disappointed but not despondent. Any paintings I failed to sell at auction first time out had sold better second time round. Consoling myself for the failure to make a high value sale, I kept thinking that all was fine, although the total sold at the exhibition was only about £9,000. That just covered the expenses and yielded a small profit.

The objective to sell a major painting remained a distant dream, but dreams and hopes are part of a healthy life. I am an optimist and the couple of good contacts I made at the exhibition gave me reasonable hope of more sales. Was Mr LM seriously interested in something major? Fingers crossed!

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