SO CALLED ART EXPERTS!!!

NO FICTION, JUST FACTS AND REAL STORIES OF A LIFETIME IN ART ARENA!!

 

I used to visit auctions nearly daily back in the 1980S. It was rewarding, it was pleasing and it provided bread and butter for the family. Events at auctions are sometimes pure luck and on other occasions unlucky events.

 

A purchase at auction but no auctioneers’ fees! William Page
1988 – Christie’s South Kensington, London

Investing in art requires hard work, special knowledge and a fair element of luck. Luck, you may call it coincidence, is something I have been blessed with in abundance. How on earth was I at Christie’s South Kensington that morning at the very moment this gentleman was disappointingly putting back into an envelope several drawings, one of which I caught a glimpse of and thought looked rather interesting? Split seconds and I would have known nothing! What can I say and how can I explain such an event?
This story is very unusual, rare and still vivid in my memory. The experience of it gives anybody reading my memoirs an idea of why it is impossible to guess or know where a worthwhile opportunity might be. It could be at the:
• Local church fair
• Local market
• Boot fair
• Junk shop
• Charity shop
• Small gallery or antique shop
• Neighbourhood auction
• Country auction
• Major auction

I had driven to Christie’s South Kensington with my wife and boys to collect a painting. On arrival I headed to the reception area where many people were going about their business at the counter. I stood looking curiously around and noticed next to me a tall, well-dressed gentleman handling a group of drawings and putting them dejectedly back into an envelope. I glimpsed something that looked like an ancient Greek temple/monument and that spurted me into action – nothing to lose in asking, talking and perhaps trading.
“What happened? What have they told you?” I asked sincerely feeling the pain of rejection.
“I have this group of drawings of various places, but the expert didn’t like them and told me they are of very low value. I brought them all the way from America and now I have to take them back. What a nuisance!” he muttered sighing in desperation.
I was genuinely sympathetic and felt the man’s distress. It had happened to me so many times, and let me tell you, it can be a hell of a bad feeling. These experts! They seem heartless at times. Wasting no time, concerned and interested, I asked whether I could have a look.

“Sure,” he replied. “Hope you like something.” I went through the drawings quickly admiring the quality. I did not know the hand that painted most of them, but two of them I put aside.
“I’d like to buy these two,” I stated firmly. “How much are you asking for them?”
“Well, I’m not sure, how about twenty pounds each?” the polite American questioned.
“No problem,” I replied quickly, delighted with the forty pound quote. “Can I meet you later and bring you the money as I have no cash on me right now?” How silly, I should have had money on me – I was a trader.
“Oh, I don’t know where I’m going to be this evening,” he said sadly.
Thinking fast, acting instinctively, “Can you wait a moment?” I asked. “Let me go to the car, I might have some cash there.”
I ran, literally ran to the car, I gathered some loose pounds, my wife had a few too and all in all we managed to put together thirty-two pounds. Armed with so little, I ran back quickly, worried the man might disappear. Apologizing, I explained that I had only thirty-two pounds to which he replied happily, “That’s fine, don’t worry. I’m glad you liked something as I think these drawings are very good.”
Indeed, the two drawings I bought were very good. In my opinion, they were both drawings by William Page, the American artist who painted many views of Athens and Greece in the middle of the 19th century. I had seen enough of his work in various topographical auctions and catalogues to recognize the style and the artist, no doubt!
Visiting and revisiting those catalogues was great education. I was becoming an expert on certain things and it seemed that my labours would be rewarded with the purchase or gift at the counter of Christie’s South Kensington.

Experts and their ‘expertise’, is a recurring issue of discussion throughout this book. The two drawings were, in my view, by William Page, but who was I to suggest that? I was a trader/investor who had appeared on the auction scene just five years earlier. Would any expert, so-called expert at auction, listen to such a person as me? After all, the expert of Christie’s South Kensington had rejected them. As an owner I valued my art highly, but at times that had nearly no bearing on experts’ valuations and opinion. What was the reality at the end of the day for the two drawings? Should I frequent auctions and buy on the hoof just as I had done at Christie’s or not?

Was thirty-two pounds money to even talk about? I suppose not, but what if that negligible sum became a significant amount? Well, what happened with the first watercolour when offered for auction through Sotheby’s in 1989, and how did I manage with the other one? More on that later!

More importantly and once again, my wife had come to my rescue with a few pounds. I was always lucky, always buying something for nothing when she was with me. Why didn’t I manage to win her over and engage her in this business of mine? I always wondered, but as she openly says, “Where is the money made in this business? I never see any!” She was absolutely right, as a lot of the profits were invested in learning the trade and the rest re-invested in a fairly big art collection.
The experiences I have had with experts at most auctions have been educational and profitable even when their expertise was negative. I cannot help ignoring their expertise at times, but at the same time I cannot praise them enough for the excellent job they are doing. Concluding, I ought to admit to their invaluable contribution to the honesty of art auctioning, but also to the undeniable fact that at times they err with serious consequences for sellers and buyers.

 

My book Rags or Riches is full of stories of similar nature. The two drawings were sold as William Page with one sold through Sothebys in very special circumstances. That event or events merit reference in my next entry to the blog.

Peter Constant

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