22nd October 2021

Sleepers at Auction Begging to Be Picked Up

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I Always Hoped for A Bargain

I walked into auction rooms thousands of times. Nobody botherered me, nobody asked why I was viweing and visiting and I knew that my custom was always welcome. This was not just when visiting an auction but also when I was calling from London anywhere in the world.

The experience below will indicate to all my readers what opportunities might lie sleeping anywhere, what one should know about cataloguing of items at auction. That is all part and parcel of the business as I describe it and narrate in my book, Rags or Riches..

Local auctions everywhere hide treasures

Vicenzo Lanza

(Greek / Italian, [1822-1902] Painted mainly in watercolours. His views of Athens are much sought after and collected extensively by Greek investors. Auction price range £2000 – 17,000)

April 2002, Lots Road, London – 15th October 2002, Sotheby’s London

The hard, difficult times of the 1990s became a distant memory by 1997 and the prudent hard-working investor got his rewards in the memorable sales of Ralli and Ghika. The sale of Exter made things a lot easier and the business was on firm, solid ground once again. The teaching job was paying well, my wife was earning a very good sum as a teacher too and everything looked positive. Unfortunately, the stock was more on numbers than on quality, which was a serious worry. There was money to invest in something good as long as the returns promised a 100% reward for my labours.

There were three local auction rooms I visited regularly in London in addition to the major auction houses of Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams (Phillips). I never gave up visiting them because the rewards had proved to be extremely good over the years. Yes, I never made fortunes, but regular returns of 100-200% were not to be sniffed at. A 1000% return like the Thon was the icing on the cake.

Among the smaller auctions I visited every Sunday for many years was Lots Road Auctions in Chelsea, London. Lots Road has had mixed weekly sales on Sundays, selling everything and anything for over thirty years. Week after week I viewed the sales and on occasions bought a couple of good items, but nothing major. I have already referred to the Pierre Grisot investment made during the hard times of the early 1990s.

I spotted the Lanza watercolour of the Acropolis on the web site of Lots Road auctions a couple of days before the sale. Being advertised on the Internet was not a good omen, but it was still 2002 and many investors and especially Greek ones were not yet connected, so I was reasonably hoping that any opposition would be English dealers only. On a positive note, the estimate was only £300-500 and the watercolour was loosely described as ‘signed Lanza’ – this did not guarantee the watercolour as a Vicenzo Lanza. It could have been any Lanza.

Clever cataloguing, no responsibility of authenticity by the auction! Local auctions often describe their art in such a way so that they avoid legal battles related to authenticity!

Vicenzo Lanza painted Athens in the second half of the 19th century. His work has been very popular and I estimated the watercolour to be worth well in excess of £5000 and on a good day close to £10,000. It looked fine on the Internet, but was the quality there from close range and was it genuine? Lots Road Auctions sold genuine fine art, but also modern copies from time to time. So the buyer has to be very careful, as these auctioneers do not give guarantees on whatever they sell.

Greek art catalogues, Greek artists’ encyclopedias, topographical sale catalogues made my research thorough and complete. I refreshed and added important aspects of the work of the artist in the memory bank and with fingers crossed I made my way to Lots Road with my wife that Sunday. She always accompanied me on my Sunday tour, not just for the fun of the auction, but also to be a support when I tried to buy something. This support was imperative in the difficult years of the 1990s. Anywhere she accompanied me for this business she brought me good luck, I must admit. Was she going to do it again? Superstition! Superstition!

Lots Road Auctions are just outside the heart of Chelsea’s new harbour development. It attracts many well-heeled locals as well as collectors from other areas of London and beyond. Their sales have been successful and the fact that they are still operating profitably for over thirty years indicates how successful their business model has been. Simply:

· Lots Road Auctions accept items for quick sale.

· They require payment for purchases in cash within twenty-four hours.

· They settle sales within a week, which is ideal for vendors in desperate need of cash.

Lots Road Auctions boast extensive showrooms on two floors with modern and contemporary items on the ground floor. Climbing to the top floor at twelve o’clock was a pleasure and joy in anticipation of something good. My initial sighting of the watercolour was delayed by the fact that fine art at Lots Road is normally allocated a small space in a sideroom of their main selling room on the top floor. The excitement and high hopes of a few minutes ago was replaced by a cool, cautious optimism. The arena of the auction had plenty of opponents viewing and I knew I had to go to a bidding war to win that prize.

I spotted the distinct and unmistakable view of the Acropolis of Athens from the distance. It looked good, but how was it at close range and was it a genuine Lanza? Appearances are so misleading and yet first impressions are the best at times.

Pouncing on a bargain

Apprehensive as to who might be watching me, I approached the watercolour and had a quick look. It was in untouched condition in its original frame. That was great news to start with. It was of fine quality and the Acropolis in the distance at the centre of the watercolour was superb. I moved back quickly and stood a couple of metres away looking furtively and seemingly indifferently at the fantastic view of the Acropolis of some one hundred and fifty years ago. Was anybody else looking? Who was at the auction? Had anyone else spotted it? How much would it cost me to buy?

Apologies I cannot trace a photo of this watercolour in my archive

On the surface it appeared genuine. The frame was old, but how old? I needed to see the backboard and the back of the work. I lingered about and checked the viewers who were sparse in that part of the auction and far away, and then off I rushed to the watercolour.

I took it off the wall and looked at it carefully at the front once again. Great work! I turned it round and checked the backboard. Untouched, original, old and dirty – perfect! Not only was it 150 years old, it also bore a very old sticker of a storage company. Absolute magic! It was a treasure! It was a bargain, if bought at the estimate of £300-500! It screamed bargain, but how many others knew that?

Quickly back on the wall went the Lanza and I moved away to the centre of the room. I was one hundred percent sure the watercolour was genuine and worth a good few thousand pounds. Nobody had seen me checking the piece. I was left alone in my desires and schemes, but the image kept me rooted to the spot. I could not move away from the gem, afraid it might disappear. I considered the watercolour mine already. Dreamer as always!

No worries and no anxiety? Are you joking? I was so nervous and agitated. I would have to cough out a few thousand pounds to buy the impressive Lanza, if others got wind of it. Where would that money come from? I had already invested most of the money from the Exter sale.

It was not worth my time driving back to North London and then returning for the sale, so I remained to bid in person. I was not going to leave anything to chance; I had to be at the sale. A walk to the harbour calmed me down and allowed me to work out a plan and strategy of bidding. Did I need one? I was not sure, but I had to think out scenarios.

Close to two o’clock I was back in the auction rooms of Lots Road. I registered to bid and followed the auctioning of earlier items. Nothing else in the sale interested me. I waited and waited, sitting uncomfortably in the saleroom, checking the faces of whoever was there; fortunately no Greek faces I could recognise. I waited worryingly, hoping for the best, but knowing that auctions can hide nasty surprises and unexpected events. I kept looking round like a hawk. Am I going to buy the piece at three hundred pounds or am I going to go home empty-handed and bitterly disappointed. I prayed that no Greeks were present as I felt I could beat the English trade.

It was time for the Lanza. The auctioneer looked round for a bid. Nothing! No movement and no whisper!

“I have £250,” announced the auctioneer, and thus commenced the auction and action. A single hand went up. The bidder was standing at the door entrance with three others, all English traders. I had seen them talking together earlier and was sure they were not Greeks.

“Two seventy…three hundred.” I remained quiet, biding my time. “Three hundred, three hundred, no more?” asked the auctioneer. I waited until the last moment and then raised my hand at £320. This was followed by another bid by the man at the door. I was sure he was a bargain hunter like myself, but did he know what I knew? I was in a bidding war against somebody who might be my worst enemy in a few minutes. I was turning red, burning coal-hot and getting over-excited. The auctioneer was at £500.

“Five hundred against you at the door. Five-fifty, I have,” announced the auctioneer, pointing at me. “Six hundred, six hundred I have against you sitting.”

I was ready to bid up to £2000 and perhaps more, but I wanted that man out there and then, not in a couple of minutes and when poorer by a few thousand pounds.

“Six-twenty, it’s against you standing. One more, sir?” The man reluctantly nodded at which point my hand went up determinedly and aggressively. Scare him, I thought. Scared he was, he looked away, staring at the floor in defeat. He was beaten and I was the winner of the bloodless, bidding war.

“Six-fifty, I have, I am selling” announced the auctioneer loudly and down came the gavel. “To you sir,” the auctioneer pointed smiling, but the smiles were all mine. I knew I had bought a bargain, a major bargain! Why had I educated myself in the art trade for so long? I was a connoisseur after nineteen years, wasn’t I? I estimated the Lanza to be worth close to £10,000. That’s what the auction sales pointed to, but as usual I always thought highly of any art I invested in. By the time I bought the Lanza in 2002, I had already invested most of the proceeds from the Exter sale and I was back to difficulties in raising money for further investments. What a vicious circle, but what thrills and what joys there were in between!

Is 800% profit within seven months bad?

Thus the Lanza was to be sold immediately. I was investing in contemporary art and the money required there was significant. My rationale was simple. Buy and sell old art for the short term, invest in contemporary art for the long term. Whether that was a good policy or not only the future would tell.

My plan was to enter the painting in a Greek sale at Sotheby’s, London that autumn. Although my relationship with Sotheby’s’ experts was good, the expert in charge insisted that the Lanza should be sold in a ‘Topographical’ sale on 15th October 2002 and not the Greek sale of the same month two weeks earlier. I was very upset but I had no option. I needed the money and I could not afford to wait, although I believed the watercolour was likely to sell better in the Greek Sale.

Why did you sell then, I ask myself today? Cash flow, simple and straight! Plenty of other investments took serious money away from my pocket. With an estimate of £7-10,000 and a reserve of £6,500 I was at least happy with that part of the deal. I rationalized and concluded that the topographical catalogue would be out together with the Greek Sale one and that all the investors in Greek art would see both catalogues. I was trying to calm myself down and lift my sagging spirits. Once again I felt I was let down by experts.

October was soon upon us and the Lanza was the only significant painting I had for sale that autumn. I was not particularly pressed for money by then as I had already collected another significant amount from the sale of the Thon painting. Art was looking after me and I was looking after art by sponsoring and accumulating it.

The catalogue was out and the Lanza was beautifully illustrated with a magnificent whole page photo early on in the sale. It was what the collectors were after: old Athens with the Acropolis and the Parthenon dominating the centre of the watercolour! To support my positive thoughts, the Greek sale on 2nd October was successful and everything pointed to a well-attended sale two weeks later. Furthermore, I was also hoping to invest in two bargains, which I had singled out in that sale: a punchy Thanos Tsingos work with a very attractive estimate and an Emilios Prosalentis watercolour, catalogued wrongly as by another Prosalentis, hence the low estimate.

The saleroom was nearly full. There was a real buzz in the big saleroom of Sotheby’s. The Greeks were present in numbers and soon the Lanza watercolour came up for sale. “Lot five, Vicenzo Lanza,” announced the auctioneer. “Five thousand pounds. Five thousand, I have.” All quiet. Dead silence. Nobody was moving. Bidding against the wall is legal and normal in order to reach the reserve. Cool, composed and in usual business mode the auctioneer continued, “Five thousand five-hundred, six thousand, six thousand five-hundred.” It was a quick march to the reserve. “Six thousand five-hundred, six thousand five-hundred,” stated the auctioneer looking round expectantly. “Are you all done? I am selling at £6,500. I am selling, make no mistake!” and down came the gavel burying hopes of a bidding war.

The bang was a harsh blow on my expectations, but soon enough I recovered, composed myself and calmed down. Why was I so upset? What was wrong with me? How greedy was I? The blockbuster sale did not happen, but a £750 investment had become eight times more within six months. That was 800% return. What else did I wish for? Tap yourself on the back old man and say, “ Well done!” I had high expectations of myself and consequently of my investments, but such profits warranted celebrations not lamentations.

I had to work hard to get to such bargains as the Lanza and I knew that it was rare to come across another one soon. I had to be lucky, I had to dig deep everywhere to make another purchase like that. However, the possibility of buying well in that same sale made the disappointing result more palatable. A few lots later I managed to buy the wrongly catalogued Emilios Prosalentis watercolour, which was a small consolation. Unfortunately, I never managed to buy the Tsingos painting as it sold for £10,000 from an estimate of £2,000-3,000. However, one sale and one purchase were enough to satisfy the hungry investor and give hope for more of the same.

Knowledge and luck had played their part once again, and with those factors assisting I could do no wrong, could I? Regardless of my hard-working ethos, regardless of the knowledge I had accumulated over the years, I considered luck the biggest, inseparable, necessary player in all my efforts.

Was Luck and Knowledge leading me to Rags or Riches?

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