WHEN YOU START A NEW BUSINESS, YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT THE FUTURE IS!!
THERE WERE RISKS, THERE WERE UNCERTAINTIES BUT I WAS A DARING PERSON WHO HAD TO GO THROUGH FIRE IN ORDER TO MAKE THINGS HAPPEN. I WAS MADE OF HARD STAFF, I WENT THROUGH ADVERSITY AND LOSS OF HOME AND EVERYTHING THAT MEANT HOME AND SOUL AND I WAS DETERMINED TO MAKE A SECOND HOME IN BRITAIN, IN LONDON.
The first heartbreak at Sotheby’s
July 1985, Sotheby’s London I deliberated, I procrastinated and agonised over whether to sell or keep the Jongkind – the first major painting I had invested in. Day after day, week after week, I questioned myself. I asked other people’s opinion. The only reason to sell was my burning desire to learn the business of trading art at the highest level, if it was possible. Keeping the painting would have meant an end to that dream.
Reality can be destroyed, hope can be buried but never allow a dream to die away.
Thus off to Sotheby’s I directed myself to consign the Jongkind and keep the dream alive. It was early July 1985 and the time to consign art for the autumn sales. Which sale and which department was the question, the impressionist or the 19th century department? There was no significant headache in making a decision. Impressionist art was the most popular section of the art market, which also achieved the strongest sales. Furthermore, Jongkind’s best prices were achieved in impressionist sales. The timing of consignment was important. I had already bought a pretty Henri Lebasque painting in San Francisco, also marked out for the same Sotheby’s sale. I knew already that if I consigned two or three paintings at the same time and with the same auction and experts in charge, they would look upon my business more favourably. More business offered through them, meant more money for them in commissions both from seller and buyer! Such knowledge and policy I employed on many occasions and that won me the experts’ favour and respect! Experts do give favours, and these we all need at times! This fact will become more evident in the stories to follow, but it is not a rule, I might add!
To own a four thousand pounds painting in 1985 was a new and major experience for me. To be driving to Sotheby’s ready to consign it for sale was emotionally draining and scary. I was made of hard stuff, but this experience needed additional guts, nerve and belief in what I was doing. Did I have a master’s painting or did I believe I had what was never there? That was no time for doubts, but inexperience and the cost of the painting caused me ineffable insecurity and worry.
Anxious to hear the experts’ opinion and their valuation I arrived at Sotheby’s convinced that Jongkind would change the course of business and perhaps my life. The omens were good – the weather was great, the city of London beaming in the summer sunshine. Certain that the painting was by the artist, I dreamt of miracles and millions on my way to the centre of London.
Melanie Glore was a young expert in the Impressionist department of Sotheby’s. I had seen her on a couple of occasions taking auctions and I was impressed by her cool manner and efficiency. The formalities of introduction over, she turned to the painting with immense interest. She kept looking for a couple of minutes at the front, which seemed hours to me. She didn’t say anything. She turned the painting expertly to the back. She looked at the support, the old canvas and condition. Back to the front, she checked the signatures, once, twice, then again. She touched and felt the paint. Two minutes were centuries for me let alone four and five! The apprentice was learning from the expert. It was invaluable teaching time and it was free. What is she doing, I kept wondering? What is the issue? Everything was a novelty. I kept looking, watching and noting. She was a specialist, an expert in the most important department of Sotheby’s. Speak, please! Tell me something! “This is a very interesting painting Mr Constant…”
A Post-Impressionist at the reserve of two thousand dollars?
June 1985, San Francisco Henri Lebasque
(French, [1865-1937] Important French Post-Impressionist artist collected worldwide. Lebasque painted French landscapes as well as figurative paintings depicting his family in garden, beach scenes and interiors. Auction price range £3000- 300,000 plus)
LEBASQUE, ANOTHER IMAGE
Butterfields and Butterfields was the biggest auction house on the west coast of the USA until bought up by Bonhams in the 2000s. Fortunately for me the auction was not widely known in 1985, even though it held a good paintings sale three times a year. The sales were always mixed, incorporating Old Masters, 19th century paintings, Impressionists, modern and contemporary art all in one catalogue and conservatively estimated, which suited me perfectly. In addition and of utmost importance, I had developed an excellent business relationship with the expert in charge of the paintings department due to the Laurence sale. I trusted his opinion, believed his reports and relied heavily on them. Butterfields’ sale in June of 1985 included fine paintings by major artists, but only one interested me and luckily it was within my buying range of £2000, a sum I could afford even after the splash I had made in Cologne and elsewhere. Roman assured me it was a beautiful painting in excellent condition, which I took for granted as fact and the truth. All the research suggested a possible sale of about £4000 in London, which was roughly speaking a 75% return after expenses, if I bought at the reserve. I would have been happy with 50% return, let alone 75%! I was also informed that my chances of buying at the reserve were good as there was no interest in the painting from other investors. That was promising, but I also knew that at auction anything was possible. Inexperience and nerves had the starring role early in the venture. Buying a painting was as nerve-racking as selling one. I had made arrangements to bid on the phone this time round. I was learning fast the ways of the major dealers. Waking up at 3:00 am was no problem. I always liked being involved in purchases personally, and being on the phone enabled me to gauge the mood of the sale and the level I needed to bid to. Besides, experience told me that many auctioneers bid to the maximum of any bid left for them to execute.
Caution, when leaving bids on the book at auction. If it is possible attend the auction and bid in person. The joy is tenfold, the experience invaluable!
“Mr Constant,” said the young lady on the other side of the planet, “we are on lot …and I shall be with you in a couple of minutes. Please stay on the line.” On the line I was, prepared I was and extremely nervous more than anything. The money I had was just enough to buy the Lebasque, if I was lucky. Would there be a bidding war at Butterfields first time out? Would I be so unlucky and Roman so wrong? “The Lebasque Mr Constant, fifteen hundred dollars against us. Are you bidding?” “Yes!” “Sixteen hundred,” I hear the young lady, “Seventeen hundred, against us. Do you want eighteen hundred?” “Yes!” firmly and resolutely. “Nineteen hundred against us, do you want two thousand?” “Yes, one more please!” fearing that bidding war all dealers worry about. “Two thousand,” I hear the auctioneer, “two thousand and two thousand” and the gavel came down quickly. “Congratulations Mr Constant at two thousand dollars. Yours!” At $2200 (inc 10% commssions) the Henri Lebasque was mine. No hassle, no competition. “How does the painting look miss?” I asked concerned, as the catalogue had a black and white illustration of the piece. “It’s a lovely, colourful painting, Mr Constant.” Taking a deep breath, happy and satisfied but still unsure, I remained sleepless in front of my catalogues studying, memorizing and researching for more treasures. I could not really believe I had bought the Mediterranean view by Lebasque. He was a very respected and highly regarded French Post-Impressionist selling well over $2200 for small watercolours let alone oil paintings. I felt that the painting had cost me half its actual current value in London, based on earlier sales’ results there. How come nobody else was interested in it? Surely other collectors and dealers had seen it. It was incomprehensible to me! Everybody wants to make two thousand pounds or was I on another sweet dream trip that would gradually turn into a nightmare? Why had I been able to buy at half price, I kept wondering and asking myself? Now, together with the Jongkind I had two good paintings for the autumn sales at Sotheby’s Impressionist department. I instructed Butterfields to ship the Lebasque directly to Sotheby’s London. Money buys all kinds of services and shipping a painting from San Francisco to London at a cost of about one hundred pounds was no problem. By mid-July the painting was in London. The experts at Sotheby’s loved it and promptly included it in the Impressionist sale of October 1985 with an estimate of £3-5000. Auction to auction, just like that! From auction to auction and from the comfort of home without moving a finger!
I still kept wondering and asking myself why I had been allowed to buy cheaply. It was so unreal to be able to buy two good paintings with a lot of potential so early on in the art venture. Was it really that easy or was I that lucky? Beginner’s luck, I guess! There was no other reasonable explanation or would there be unwelcome surprises in store for me?
I WAS AN AMATEUR LEARNING THE HARD WAY BUT I WAS MASSIVELY DETERMINED TO SUCCEED AND MAKE A GO INTO ART BUSINESS!!