THE ART TRADE LOOKS FOR ART OF UNTOUCHED CONSITION
THE TERM UNTOUCHED MEANS PLENTY TO THE ART TRADE BUT NEARLY NOTHING TO THE ART LOVING PUBLIC. I HAD PLENTY A CHANCE TO ACQUIRE ART IN ITS ORIGINAL CONDITION. THE FIRST ONE COST ME A PRETTY PENNY AS I HAD NO IDEA WHO THE RESTORERS AND REPAIRERS OF ART WERE. THUS IT COST ME A LOT OF MONEY TO RESORE A PAINTING THAT PROVED TO BE A FAKE IN THE END.
LEARNING THE ART BUSINESS COST A LOT AND THAT WAS ONE LESSON NEVER REPEATED. ACTUALLY I FOUND THE DOOR OF INEXPAENSIVE RESTORERS WHICH SERVED ME FINE FOR A LONG TIME AND ANY TIME I HAD SOMETHING TO REPAIR AND MAINTAIN.
AS I HAVE NO PHOTOS OF BOCACCHIAMBI AT HAND I AM USING THE PANTAZIS PHOTOS WHERE RESTORATION WAS NOT THAT MUCH BUT ILLUSTRATES ABUNDANTLY WHAT CAN HAPPEN WITH THE RIGHT RESTORATION.
AFTER RESTORATION THAT COST ABOUT 100.00
NEEDLESS TO SAY THAT RESTORATION COSTS DEPEND ON DAMAGE, SIZE AND HOW MUCH WORK IS REQUIRED IN HOURS. COST VARY, LOOK AND ASK AROUND.
(Greek, [1856-1933] Painted figurative paintings of exquisite beauty and landscapes of Venice and Corfu. Rare and well collected. Auction price range £2,000 – 8,000)
May 1998, Athens – 13th October1999, Sotheby’s London
Greek collectors demand ready to hang paintings
Meeting Dems was accidental but our business association was far from that. He had the time and the connections to acquire good art at prices allowing reasonable profits. Contemporary art was his strength but he also came up with some very good old paintings by prominent Greek artists including the Pantazis talked about earlier.
Dem’s phone call was quick and to the point. “I have a painting of Vikentios Boccachiambi for you. It’s a good painting and at a good price. It’s a bargain as the owners need a quick sale.”
Dems was an extremely busy man. We met at The Holiday Inn in Athens that very afternoon. He entered the cafeteria like a hurricane, puffing and out of breath. It was early summer but the temperature was soaring and the heat was unbearable. Relaxing a second, Dems carried on from where he had left off on the phone. No rest, no time to rest!
“This is a great painting Peter. It is a beautiful scene of Venice, but the painting needs to be restored a little. It has a few condition problems here and there. You must see it. You must buy it. You will make money, if you buy it.” Persuasive and adamant!
“Calm down Dems and let’s have a look at the painting,” I replied worried about Dems health.
Rushing to the car like the wind, Dems took out the painting and handed it to me, there and then. The Boccachiambi work was indeed a master’s work, but in poor condition. A couple of small holes, loss of paint in several spots, dirty and neglected. It was a real gem in untouched condition. It was quality in Venice, even though I would have liked it to be a few centimetres bigger. Nevertheless, at 32x53cm it was not a miniature and importantly it was also in its original frame.
A View of Venice with The Doge’s Palace was a rather original subject for a Greek artist, but it captured the magic that is Venice wonderfully: the magnificent Dogis Palace; the famous church of Santa Maria della Salute at the mouth of the Grand Canal; the spectacular sunset glow over shimmering waters; the boats and gondolas; the busy promenade. It was all hazy, all covered in dirt but I could see through it, underneath it. I loved it and I had to buy it.
However, I needed to follow a certain path:
· Do not reveal your intentions and your real feelings when buying
· Hide you enthusiasm and liking of the piece in question
· Find regrettable faults in order to keep the price depressed
· Bargain as much as you can. You are in Athens, Greece not Britain or America where you still have to bargain!
“What’s the asking price Demosthenes?” I asked nonchalantly.
“I’m selling this on behalf of the owners on a commission basis. They are asking for 600,000 drachmas (about £1500).”
In Greece, you always bargain and I had to bargain. Pointing out vigorously that I would need to spend some money to restore the painting and that the vendors were asking too much for a painting in such condition, I made an offer of £1200.
“I always sell at rock bottom and with 10-20% profit. My commission here is 20% and I have to make that sum. There is no way I will sell this painting below that amount.” I argued back protesting that I would not make any money, but I was not convincing because I loved the beautiful Boccachiambi.
“No, I’m honest and am telling you the truth,” Dems thundered. “It’s going to be 600,000 and I know that this painting can sell over a million drachmas right away (£2200). It’s a great painting of Venice.” He was forceful, convincing and demanding. He was a good trader, but honest too!
He was right. The painting could be worth about £3000 in restored condition. I was in a dilemma. Why pass such an opportunity for a couple of hundred pounds, so without much more acrimony I agreed to the sum of fifteen hundred pounds.
The Grand Canal restored; a symphony of colours and beauty saved
Many experts and especially dealers consider the restoration of paintings an anathema. There are valid reasons for this:
· Restoration of works of art can turn out terribly badly as there are many unqualified art restorers. A good restorer is like a good doctor who cares about his patient and gently and patiently saves his/her life.
· Relining and restoration might also hide professional fakes, which auctions, serious dealers and galleries do not want to know about.
· The general advice is not to restore your artwork, if you are to sell at auction. In London, the trade does most of the buying when it comes to British art and prefer the paintings to be in original, unrestored condition. In the country private investors are the main buyers, but unrestored art is chased to high levels by the city trade who scour the country for bargains in original, untouched condition. In the USA paintings are bought for their aesthetic value and their auction market.
Contrary to elsewhere, 90% of Greek art sold at Greek Art Sales in London and Athens is sold to private investors who prefer to buy ready to hang paintings. Being aware of that fact forced me to have the painting relined and restored. It was a small headache and expense, but it had to be done if the painting was to realize its true potential.
As early as summer 1987 I had a reliable restorer, a reliable framer and even a photographer. They were very good and they charged much less than the hyped names of London. Working outside London made overheads considerably lower and that suited all of us. No more wasted money like in the early days of trading. Money wasted, but experience had to be paid for, something that I feel is not necessary all the time, thus the usefulness of this diary!
Robert Mitchell and associates are a well-known art restoration business. I valued RM’s opinion greatly and I trusted his advice completely. He had always been honest, forthcoming and above all sincere and correct in his advice on matters of restoration. The Boccachiambi was flat on his working bench. “Wonderful painting”, he commented, looking at it critically. “It will look magnificent once restored. I need to clean it first and reline it to steady all the elements of the work. I am confident it will look beautiful when you see it next time.” I was sure he was right. This was not the first time he had brought a painting back to life for me. I was extremely surprised to see how a damaged painting could recover its old sparkle so successfully.
By December 1998 the Boccachiambi was ready and I set off to RM, an hour away on the periphery of London, to collect it. I was looking forward to seeing the outcome of three months’ work and I prayed he had done a good job as a handsome sum of money depended on the outcome of his work!
Robert brought the painting out from the bottom of his working bench. He took off the jacket of light paper it was wrapped in, and miracle of miracles and hands of angels who restore fine art. The Boccachiambi had become a wonderful symphony of light, colour and human activity! The canal sparkled and the city glowed in the evening sunset. The Palazzo shone and Santa Maria della Salute at the mouth of the canal stood out as the centerpiece of the canvas.
I was spellbound for a few moments, while Robert looked at me. I was so surprised looking at the painting and the result. It was as if I was seeing the painting for the first time. Indeed I was. It was a new magnificent painting in an incredible colouring.
“Well? What do you think?”
“I am speechless, Robert! I don’t know what to say. It’s great! Absolute magic! Fantastic work and restoration, and what a result!”
Restored art -advantage or disadvantage?
The beauty of it all was that the restoration cost only three hundred pounds. Yes, RM was inexpensive and yet very, very good! I drove back to London knowing I had an impressive painting of 19th century Venice ready for the Greek collectors in perfect hanging order. I was confident it would be snapped up well above the £1800 it cost me, which included the restoration cost. It would give any investor joy, happiness and financial rewards too.
Why did I sell such a beautiful and much loved painting? Writing about it, I am honestly ashamed of myself. But by the summer of 1999 I was in dire financial straits once again! Investing in many paintings and in a lot of contemporary art for the long term had become unsustainable. Reluctantly, I had to let the Boccachiambi go in order to facilitate the inclusion for sale of other Greek art. Sotheby’s included the painting in their topographical sale of October 1999 with an estimate of £2500-3500. The expert liked the painting a lot, even though restored, but as usual the estimate was rather conservative in order to attract the buyers.
Also included in the same sale were three paintings of Vasilis Zenetzis. That was a great positive step for the first contemporary artist I was collecting and investing in. It was my opinion, and still is, that the Bocacchiambi work facilitated the acceptance of those three paintings. Consigning art in numbers always assists the inclusion of lesser value paintings in a sale.
There were thirty-eight Greek subject paintings or Greek artists in the October auction (no sales solely for Greek art at Sotheby’s yet). Nearly all thirty-eight sold, but what was the fate of the Boccachiambi and Zenetzis trio of paintings? Sotheby’s did a great job by illustrating in colour the Venetian picture and the two important Zenetzis paintings of the Olympian Columns with the Acropolis Beyond and Kyrenia Harbour, Cyprus.
Only several good sales would rectify my financial situation. From day one of this story it was always a case of rich in stock, but not a penny in my pocket in spite of the sale of the Ralli and Ghika. I was an avid buyer or was it art lover and art collector unbeknown to me? It was impossible to say what I was doing, trading or collecting art? I had too many long-term investments, few sales for the everyday needs and my stock was biased towards contemporary art (Zentetzis and Kalogeropoulos), which I felt was the only way forward. Established artists were hard to come by and very expensive at auction where there was so much competition! I was in a hurry with no patience to wait for the right moment and investment.
Lots 26, 27 and 28 were to be auctioned before eleven o’clock and there was no way I would have missed the sale had it been possible to attend. Unfortunately for me I could not do that, and so my friend Peter volunteered to follow the sale and relay the results to me. Always optimistic about any sales I had, I waited for Peter’s call and the good news. Considerably nervous, anxious and terribly impatient to hear the news I could not wait any longer. I paced the classroom faster and faster, holding the mobile tight staring at it. Ring! Ring!!
My phone was silent. Pacing the classroom uneasily I felt like a tiger locked up and chained in a cage. Eleven o’clock passed and no message. I trusted Peter! He was supposed to call me as soon as the sale of Greek art was over. What had happened? Why was he late in calling me? The longer he delayed the call the worse it became for me. It seemed an eternity even though it was just a few minutes after eleven. Finally the phone rang. Peter sounded happy! I knew it was good news.
The Boccachiambi sold for £4000 and the Zenezis …( read elsewhere). What a relief! It justified and confirmed my belief in the painting. Buying a painting needing restoration, bringing it back to an admirable condition for sale and then selling it for that amount was extremely satisfying. It was a return of 100% over eighteen months. Dems was the man with the goods and the sale proved didactic with new lessons learned and new knowledge acquired.
The Boccachimbi story makes it abundantly clear not to despair over a damaged or in need of restoration painting. Remedies are available, at a price of course. Have in mind the following important issues:
· Calculate the costs and possible value of the restored item. The expenses on restoration should not be more than 20% of the value of the painting in restored condition.
· Be aware that experts look at relined and restored paintings suspiciously and so take photos of the work before restoration starts. Take as many photos as you can of the front and the back of the painting.
· Keep the original old frame or have it restored if it is worth the trouble and does justice to the painting. Remember that a frame becomes part of the canvas when they are successfully matched.
· Restore a painting if the intention is to keep it for private use. Avoid restoration where possible, if the item is to be sold through auction.
On the subject of experts and expertise I must conclude with the following points. They have been crucial in my quest for riches throughout the thirty years I have been trading. I have benefited enormously from their expertise (Lawrence, Jongkind, Montezin, Ralli) and I have suffered minor losses (Harpignies). More importantly they have made it possible for me to profit hugely from investments in artists they failed to catalogue correctly (Giallinas, Thomopoulos, Ghika, Thon, Coulentianos, Lanza).
However, it has been my own judgement and knowledge that has played the most significant role and been the best guide throughout my art journey, although I did make a few errors along the way (Parthenis). Please remember that experts err, they change opinion, they become irrelevant often and new expertise and opinion justifies your view. Be patient and never dispose of a work of art just because the current expert’s opinion is negative.