Chapter XVIII Rewards in Country Auctions

December 1989 Gorringes, Lewes Sussex


Country auctions do a great job in selling all sorts of art and antiques in mixed sales. They are invaluable for quick sales and sales of small value items, which major auctions refuse to deal with. Since they are general sellers of all kinds of antiques and art, one hopes they miss something and the knowledgeable investor becomes the beneficiary of such a mistake. However, that is not to say that the major auction houses do not miss items in their sales from time to time as it becomes clear in these memoirs.

In December 1989 the markets were booming worldwide. Gorringes auctioneers in Lewes, Sussex, had their usual December auction over four days. My interest was in the paintings section to be held on Friday, the fourth day of sale. Having a great drive and still plenty of enthusiasm, I viewed the sale on the Saturday before the week of the auction. There was plenty to attract my attention, but two paintings stood out for me: a still life of flowers by Albert Williams with a very low estimate, allowing room for a decent profit, and a marine painting indistinctly signed and catalogued as by an unknown artist with an estimate of £300-500.

The signed marine oil painting interested me the most. Unlike the auctioneers, I had no difficulty in recognising the signature as Jacques Somerscales, a very respected marine artist selling regularly close to £5,000 for minor works. I knew the artist’s work very well and had actually attributed the work to the artist before examining the signature closely. If it sold at that low estimate, it would be a bargain.

Excited and dreaming about a bargain purchase, I could not wait for the sale to happen. I knew that a well below market value purchase would guarantee me a handsome profit equal to a few months’ earnings as a supply teacher.

On that Friday morning I made an early start through the dense London traffic arriving at Lewes early enough to allow me plenty of time to have breakfast at a local café and go for a stroll round the small shops of the town. Walking from shop to shop in the town of Lewes has always been a pleasant experience even in winter. However, on that day my mind and my thoughts were on one thing only – the Sommerscales marine painting, a possible sleeper, ie a bargain.

I was prepared to pay up to £1,800, even though I could afford a much more expensive painting with the Ralli money expected in the bank soon. The estimate allowed me reasonable hopes of doubling my investment within six months, and plenty more if I bought cheaply. It was pure and simple mathematics. It was business. A good profit of up to 100% perhaps 200% within six months was on the cards. Where else could I make that sort of money so quickly?

Following a mixed sale in a country auction or anywhere as a matter of fact bored me enormously. I scribbled down prices indifferently, I prayed for some missing excitement but nothing was happening. The Williams painting eventually came up for sale, and I expected it to sell close to £1000 or a little more. The auction market suggested a conservative thousand pounds or thereabouts.

Albert Williams

(English, [1922- 2010] Popular painter of still life paintings of flowers. Auction price range £500-3000)

“Two hundred,” called the auctioneer. A couple of hands went up, but at £350 the bidding stopped. At that price the painting was a bargain. With no hesitation up went my hand.

“Three-fifty I have, three-fifty, three-eighty I have,” announced the auctioneer. “Four hundred, four hundred and thirty and…four-fifty to you sir,” he said pointing straight at me. “I have four hundred and fifty. I am selling at £450, sold at £450.”

The Williams Still Life of Roses was mine. I was happy with the unexpected purchase and advised myself:

· Attend auctions even when you do not plan to buy anything.

· Follow auctions because you never know what might happen during an auction and what might sell for a bargain price.

I was pleasantly surprised to buy the Williams at five hundred pounds total, as I had expected the painting to sell well above £1000. Was I overestimating its value? Nevertheless, even though slightly uncertain about the retail value of the piece, I was very happy with my unexpected investment. No doubt I could make a few pounds soon enough, I reassured myself. Flowers, roses and by an artist selling regularly close to a thousand pounds, it was bread and butter and I was not averse to that. I was happy with my decision to attend the auction and be there early. Yes, being there, reacting quickly to the situation and bidding decisively was essential.

Happy with the Williams investment, I waited patiently for the Somerscales painting to come on the rostrum. The auction was picking up steam, the bidding was thicker and more intense and suddenly pessimism overcame me. I felt there was no chance of buying the Sommerscales cheaply, as others must have seen it. Surely, others have spotted it, I kept thinking.

Gorringes mix expensive art with low value art and that formula has proven successful over the decades. Bored and anxious to finish the auction I waited for the turn of the Sommerscales sale. I could see no familiar dealers in the room. My mind was racing ahead to the purchase of the marine painting when my train of thought was interrupted unexpectedly.

“Mr Constant, sorry to interrupt you. I’d like a word with you about the Williams you have just bought?”

Standing by one of the back walls, it was easy for one of the auctioneers’ assistants to approach me and ask this discreetly. I looked at him lost in my thoughts and failing to understand this sudden intrusion.

“Mr Constant, there is somebody who is seriously interested in buying off you the Albert Williams painting you have just bought.”

This came out of the blue and caught me by surprise. I had heard of such things happening during auctions but never before in my case. I guess there is always a first time in everything!

“Would you consider selling it?”

“Everything is for sale,” I replied stoically, “as long as the price is right.”

“What is your price, so that I can inform the interested buyer?”

“It will cost £1200.”

Works of that quality by the artist cost close to £3000 in galleries. My rationale was that, if this person wanted the painting so much, he would have to pay me at least £1000. Horse-trading happened there and then and the final agreement was £1000, payable on Monday at my house. Apparently, the interested buyer got caught up in traffic and missed the sale.

· Please give yourself plenty of time when planning to attend an auction to purchase something. Arrive early and wait rather than miss something you really want to buy.

· One hundred per cent profit within minutes of an investment cannot be rejected.

The whole story of selling the Williams took two minutes at most. That’s the way my boy, I congratulated myself. That was two weeks’ salary! Rest, you made the money for the week – just over 100% on that investment and within less than half an hour.

The Lewes auction rooms had always been lucky for me whenever I traded there: Greek art in 1986, Dyf in 1988 and now Williams in 1989. Could I get my hands on another treasure in a few minutes’ time?

I composed myself after the absolute euphoria of the Williams’ purchase and sale and waited patiently, reasonably optimistic of the next, more important purchase, the Somerscales.

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