Ploughing Through the 1990s With Two Jobs to Survive


Hard Work Brings its Rewards at the End of the Day!

16th August 2015

It was a slog to get through the recession of the 1990s. Initially, I thought art would get me out of trouble. However, as always, I decided wisely and before I got into very serious trouble to start looking for another job and more safety for myself and the family, while I carried on with art.

Teaching was my back up job and soon enough I started working on a daily basis as a supply teacher. By November 1992 I had a permanent job and the business had some steady monthly income to support it until it could stand on its own feet once again.

Local Auctions are Worth our Custom

Bargains at local and country auctions

The auction tradition is a well-established one in many developed countries. Luckily, during all the years of the diary, I have been living in England where local, neighbourhood auctions and country auctions continue to thrive. An investor can buy almost anything there from the new and contemporary to the old and antique. The services provided by these auctions are invaluable and are the oxygen of the art trade.

· They generally accept for sale lower value items, whereas many major auctions today reject anything below one thousand pounds.

· They provide quick sales close at hand and in a less intimidating environment.

· They accept property, sell and settle the account within a couple of weeks or sooner at times.

It is understandable why people prefer the convenience of these auctions and use them as their first port of call. Caution for both sellers and buyers must be advised here. Local auctions, small country auctions do catalogue and sell quickly and because of that mistakes can be made. As a result, there are bargains to be had at times and the odd sleeper may be around, but equally there are traps one must be aware of and avoid.

Art investment involves certain risks, which ought to be considered when investing either at these auctions, major auctions or privately. I took risks on many occasions and managed to buy sleepers at local and country auctions that returned me great profits. However, on rare occasions, I also bought the odd well-made fake as well. I have to elaborate on some of these investments in order to extend a helping hand through my experiences.

A twenty-pound box reveals small treasures

I was always on the lookout for that elusive bargain and continued to visit both major auctions and local, neighbourhood ones. If I could spot bargains in the 1980s, then the 1990s should offer many more chances I reasoned. During hard times people sell and I was much more qualified to spot the bargains in 1992 than in 1983.

Being a dreamer, I have always aspired high! Was that treasure box a figment of my imagination and a dream? Am I writing about reality or another miracle that happened unexpectedly? Dreams do become reality at times and there were several that did become facts of life in the thirty years of this diary.

The local auction in North Finchley, London, where I bought the Deschamps in 1987, is just a stone’s throw away from my residence. I never missed a viewing, and on a few occasions I bought good paintings at bargain prices. There was an expectation of buying something cheap every week, and if anything appeared I was there to bid and buy. Driving to view that auction with my wife was a great way to spend some time on Sundays and for years we would continue down to Bonhams and Lots Road auctions in central London. If lucky, we would buy something to reward ourselves for all the effort we put into the viewing on a regular basis.

It was early spring in 1992. The usual Sunday viewing at North Finchley was on the cards and off we went. The room as usual was crammed full of furniture, carpets, vases, plates, tea sets, lamps, boxes full of this and that and paintings on the wall. It was amongst those that I spotted a beautiful still life of flowers by the Greek artist Papanicoloau. Directly beneath it was a rather large box containing fifteen various small bits and pieces. Going through the box I noticed a good quality watercolour by the Greek artist Androutsos, two small watercolours by another Greek hand, another Greek drawing, a Japanese print and many other items I cannot recount. It was obvious that all the items came from a Greek owner or small investor in Greek art.

The sales always took place on Monday evening. This was one sale I was not going to miss! But I was apprehensive because there were a couple of other Greek investors who frequented the saleroom, including a good friend of mine. Fortunately that evening I couldn’t see anyone who might bid against me. At least, that’s what I hoped for. The still life of Spyros Papanicoloau was auctioned first and at twenty-eight pounds was a great purchase for me. Although small it was of very good quality and subsequently sold at Christie’s, Athens in 1992 for £1000. Apparently, the buyer was a shipping tycoon’s wife who fell in love with the painting.

“Ten pounds for the box,” called the auctioneer expectantly. That reminded me of the candlestick I had sold in the same rooms, ten years earlier. “Ten, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, sixteen pounds, eighteen pounds, eighteen, eighteen pounds to you sir!” and the unimpressive box was knocked down to me for a whole eighteen pounds plus two pounds commissions.

What did I buy for twenty pounds? Three watercolours? The print? Ten other items I still have in the same box? I was pleasantly surprised at the lack of competition. Happy and also worried about the items in the box as pieces disappear rather often in such cases! I waited until the auction was over. I collected the two items and off I went very satisfied with the work of the night and the purchases. The box had four Greek items that I hoped to sell quickly and make much needed cash. It was survival time! Anything to make a few pounds was better than nothing.

In those tough times I was happy to trade at 50% on anything I bought. However, the contents of the box did not sell for thirty pounds only. The Androutsos watercolour of Venice was sold for £300 to a Greek collector in Athens; it was a bargain for him too, but sweetening my client was part of the policy. I was happy with the profit. There were two small watercolours of Greek subjects that were signed, but the signature was indistinct and unreadable. Regardless, they were of high quality and I considered them valuable. One I sold at the 1992 exhibition at Hallam Fine art for £250, and the other one, a beautiful drawing of the church in Daphni, Athens, I sold to another Greek collector in Athens for £250. One more beautiful watercolour of a Greek peasant woman by the Greek artist Demetriou, I kept for myself. How did I manage that!

I was so happy with those sales that I left the rest of the contents sitting in the box for a few more years. However, the recession was biting, the expenses were high and there was nothing for keeps.

Hiroshige original print – another treasure in the box!

In spite of my financial difficulties, I kept up my subscription to the Antiques Gazette and continued to invest in the Art Sales Indexes. The fundamentals had to be maintained because experience told me of untold returns. That was how the seeds of this business were sown back in 1985. Besides, teaching brought home a respectable sum and the pain from the recession was just bearable.

The Antiques Gazette has many advertisements for auction sales but also of dealers looking for items of their specialty. Trading between dealers is valuable business, which I never discounted. Such business bypassed the auction wait and also the high commissions involved in trading at auction.

The advertisement of this dealer in the Antiques Gazette read ‘Hiroshige prints wanted.’ I remembered that the box I had bought a few years earlier in Finchley contained a Japanese print. It was very old and battered and I knew nothing about its value or whether it was of the period required. I had never traded in prints at any time during my thirty years of dealing and collecting art.

Hard times, they were. A penny was serious money, let alone a genuine Hiroshige. No shame, if the dealer came to the house and the print proved a modern copy, in which case it was worth a tenner or less as the print was badly framed and damaged with woodworm.

A few days later I welcomed a young man to the house to look at the print with a view to buying it. I had no idea what I had, so I was at his mercy. However, he looked decent, was very polite and seemed genuinely interested in buying Japanese prints. It took him a few seconds to look at the print and comment, “Pity, it is in poor condition. It needs a lot of work. However, this is a genuine Hiroshige of 1870. I’ll be interested to buy it off you for £500.” I nearly fell off the chair. Five hundred pounds for something I had paid nothing for!

“I see,” I said slowly and thoughtfully.

“Had it been in perfect condition, I would have offered you over £1000. What do you think?”

“I know nothing about prints,” I responded honestly. “I trust you are offering me a fair price and so it’s a deal!”

We shook hands and the following day the young man came to the house with £450, explaining that the restoration would cost him a little more than he initially thought. Such a sum was a bonus and a small plank to use for survival in hard times. The twenty-pound box had turned out to be a major treasure chest! I still have a few items belonging to it, but no rush to sell, is there? Many of those, I have no idea what they really are! Visiting the North London auction regularly had yielded me a serious sum of money once again. Was that a 500% or 5000% return? Was luck returning to assist me in my efforts to save the sinking ship? It looked the only way at that moment in 1994.

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