Sothebys as well as all other major auction houses in the 1980s had sales with cheap art among which one might spot a bargain here and there. I used to view the fortnight sales at Sothebys with no fail and I bought a few small bargains, which I sold immediately with a small profit.
The small watercolour I bought in early 1984 cost me a hefty 75.00 pounds and that was among the most expensive items I had bought up to that point. I needed to sell it but there was nowhere to sell it without finding out who the artist was. The Antiques Gazette solved that puzzle and the watercolour was on its way to the the USA.
Apologies no photo!!
First time in a USA auction – roses or thorns?
22nd February 1985, San Francisco, USA
Luck was on my side up to that point. The painting was shipped via the Post Office to Butterfields for as little as twenty-five pounds. I could not afford the more expensive art shippers who offered a great service but at a price. February was at hand and the painting was in the Butterfields mixed paintings February Sale with an estimate of $1200-1800. It would have been magnificent had it sold at $1200, my reserve. Would it though? Could I make £700 from just one sale? The first sale in the USA was a nerve-racking event and experience. I was far away physically, but much closer than one would imagine mentally. Worry, anxiety, pressure, hope and hopelessness, real torture! Nearly everything depended on it. What would I do if the Lawrence failed to sell? Unsold was my biggest fear. That would mean unsold charges, illustration expenses, shipping the watercolour back. How much would it all come to? How much would it cost me to ship it back? Would they ship it for me or would the shippers skin me? It was scary for an amateur and penniless beginner. Ten pounds was a big sum in those days, hundreds of pounds in unsold charges and shipping meant catastrophe! I was the only breadwinner supporting a family of three, with another baby on the way. A mistake of a few pounds meant hardship for all, a mistake of a couple of hundred pounds meant real pain. In spite of all the fears, all those negative questions and anxieties, everything else pointed to a good sale. To make the work more desirable, the expert on the artist confirmed the authenticity of the work and wrote a great footnote in the catalogue. Details such as that add to the price of an item and assist to a better sale. The watercolour was to be sold in the early morning hours, our time. Do you think I slept a wink that night? No way! The awful, terrifying thoughts, the positive, unrealistic thoughts, unsold nightmares and selling dreams all colluded to drive me mad with anxiety and worry. It was a torture waiting to find out the outcome of the sale. Waiting until the following afternoon was like spending time in jail.
I phoned Butterfields late in the afternoon of the following day dying to find out whether that first dream of making serious money had come true or my nightmares had become reality. “Lot … Miss, the Sydney Laurence watercolour, what is the result please?” I asked terrified. Silence, seconds passed. They seemed hours to me. “Sold $2500, sir.” Sudden, loud and clear! “How much miss?” I asked again, distrusting my hearing. “Twenty-five hundred dollars, sir! Sold!” I could not believe it! Two thousand, five hundred dollars! It was a dream, not reality for me. That was double the money I had earned over two months from teaching and more than double the money I had available to trade art. I sat down, took it all in! Fantastic! Great! Unbelievable! I jumped up and down screaming with happiness, punching the air with fists and feet. Yes! Yes! Yes! It had sold, sold for $2500. That was beyond my wildest dreams and expectations. I was on cloud nine. That was a highly respectable sum of money. The net proceeds came to £1800. Yes, I was over the moon with the profit but more so with that lucky purchase. It was salvation, it was exhilaration; it was the real beginning in my art venture. Luck! Lady Luck, thank you millions! The impossible joy of the first leap into art had happened unexpectedly and out of the blue at Sotheby’s London. That was the day my life changed, that was the event that turned my life forever, that was the decisive moment a new direction was furrowed! The gate to a treasure cave was unlocked, but it was still firmly shut. It was unbelievable and unimaginable, wasn’t it? The return of the investment over a year was a smashing, incredible 2000%. Exodus from the pennies to the pounds! Lucky beginner or what?
The trade of the Lawrence came hand in hand with many valuable lessons:
• Experts at auction houses are sometimes ignorant of artists who are not well known. Take their advice with a pinch of salt, especially when the artist you present to them is relatively unknown and not a name appearing at auction often!
• Seasoned dealers did not know who Lawrence was, thus I concluded I had a chance to succeed in the business in spite of my lack of knowledge at the time.
• There were many artists who were unknown to the English investors but well known to the collectors of their nation of origin.
• Many paintings are unsigned or signed with signatures that are difficult to read or identify. I need not spell out what to do or do I? Keep quiet if you are a buyer; make everything known if you are a seller.
The Lawrence watercolour gave me my first serious return on a small investment within eighteen months of trading in art. Up to that point I would say I had invested time and money learning the basics of the trade. That profit was extremely important for me as it balanced my expenses and input into the business. At the same time it gave me a serious financial push forward, a good sum of money to invest in something more important and perhaps more profitable. It was time to see the bank manager! I had not returned to the bank asking for money after October 1983. However since that time my trades had been frequent, and although the sums involved were small my account clearly illustrated that the activity was profitable. The latest proceeds from the Lawrence sale had made the account look even more attractive. On seeing the banker in April 1985 he agreed to an overdraft of £6,000, thus keeping his promise of eighteen months earlier. The business that had started with £10 in 1983 now had a trading sum of nearly £10,000 that included the loan, all the savings from work and any profits made up to that time.
In art I trusted all. Trading art was working pretty well and I was full of optimism and hope, even though I was still far from being a competent and well-read trader/investor. However, to balance my ignorance, I had luck and hard work on my side.
The beginning was impressive and that was how my art quest started for real! It was an un-expected return and also the real beginning of trading art in USA, Britain and elsewhere. The boundaries were broken, the world of art was penetrated and i was learning fast the secrets of the business while i was making good money!!
Peter Constant, more in my book, Rugs or Riches published in London in 2013