Sydney Lawrence at Sotheby’s London, January 1984


A watercolour of quality, but who is Sydney Lawrence?

January 1984, Sotheby’s London

The fortnightly art sale at Sotheby’s Conduit Street was an event I always looked forward to. School teaching over for the day, I would head there in the afternoon with so much energy to view whatever was offered for sale! Where did I find that energy? Well, I was still young then and viewing and attending auctions gave me so much pleasure! If I managed to buy something, it made my efforts all the more worthwhile!

The truth was that I was still a neophyte buying insignificant art at the time. Unfortunately, I kept no records of purchases then, because whatever I was doing was an amateur’s activity. I did not have the financial resources or the knowledge to trade art successfully and so everything was done on the hoof and for personal satisfaction. Yes, I had aspirations, but I never thought dealing in art would take off quickly and develop into a small investment business.

It was at one of these Conduit Street auctions that I purchased the Sydney Lawrence watercolour for £75 in early 1984. It was a lovely watercolour of the Bay of Naples, a popular Mediterranean subject with many collectors and especially those coming from that part of the world. I searched the few catalogues in my collection but found no record of any Lawrence. My booklets with names and results yielded no information either. There was no reference to Lawrence anywhere. So disappointing and so frustrating!

No disappointment with the watercolour sitting pretty on my wall however! What a joy! Even though small and by an unknown artist, I loved it. I kept staring at the setting of the Vesuvius area in Southern Italy; Vesuvius majestic in the distance, fishing boat in the foreground, fisherman tenderly tending his boat and the calm blue sea and sky as one on the horizon. It was a beautiful watercolour by a very capable hand, but who was Lawrence? I did not know and it frustrated me. Perhaps I will be able to keep it for myself, I kept thinking childishly.

However, I was dealing in pictures and hoping to make a few pounds profit. I had to shift the money and move on. My working money was a few hundred pounds, perhaps just over a thousand pounds by the end of 1984. Everything I did was to do with the venture and everything that was a leftover from my earnings as a supply teacher I used in the business. That was it. No more! Frustrating at times but also a blessing! I needed time to learn the ins and outs of the business at least to a minimum. I was an apprentice! I was a mega-ignoramus!

Who was the artist Sydney Lawrence? How much was it worth? It had cost me a fortune – yes, seventy-five pounds was a fortune for me in 1984! Perhaps the watercolour was my biggest art investment at that time, I cannot be sure. It is over twenty-nine years ago now! I was trading other cheaper items and making small sums of money, but this I kept because I knew nothing of the artist. I just had a feeling about it being special. I felt it was a watercolour of importance. I knew it, and yet how did I know? I didn’t! Perhaps it was sheer luck I kept it, perhaps my Fairy Godmother was guiding me. I waited for something to happen, but what that something would be I had no idea. Investment in reference publications and new knowledge might help, I hoped!

The Antiques Gazette opens my eyes! Sydney Laurence

October 1984

‘The Antiques Gazette’ was a worthwhile investment for keeping in touch with the art world. In those days it was about £30 subscription for the whole year, if my memory serves me right. The publication is the trade paper for antiques and art in Britain and many parts of the world, thus essential to any serious art investor/trader. Reading it, referring to its articles and its sales’ results was food for thought and knowledge.

It was about late October, early November 1984 when I spotted something in an advertisement of an art sale by Butterfields and Butterfields, a San Francisco, USA auction house. This auction was new to me and of course I had never bought or sold anything there. It was too far away, too expensive and way above my league at that time!

There in the ad was a photo of a painting by a Sydney Laurence. Could this be what I was searching for? Could this Sydney ‘Laurence’ be the Sydney ‘Lawrence’ of the watercolour? The style and subject of this painting appeared completely unrelated to the watercolour. It was a very long shot, but I had to investigate it. Nothing was going to stop me from inquiring about the two names and possible relationship. Holding onto a thread and hoping for miracles was preferable to doing nothing and sitting idle.

Butterfields and Butterfields responded quickly and unexpectedly to my letter. I was expecting an answer, but what a response was that! Yes, the artist was one and the same. Unbelievable! A minute difference in the name or signature means a different artist, usually. Not on this occasion. How fortunate! What a lucky coincidence! Within a month the expert on the artist confirmed that the watercolour was by Sydney Laurence and the first lessons in trading were in place.

· Never sell an artwork if you are not sure about its creator.

· Never fear to make inquiries about a property of yours even when many facts speak against such inquiry.

· A small sum of money in an artwork might turn out to be a major sum when sold.


Sydney Laurence

(American, [1865-1940]. Travelled to England with his wife in 1889, settling in the artists’ colony of St Ives, Cornwall. Returned to the USA in 1903 where he made Alaska his home and became famous for his landscapes of Alaska and Mount Mckinley. Auction price range £3000-30,000)

What a stroke of luck! The American artist was selling up to $20,000 for lovely oil paintings. Was he the artist who would make my dreams come true? The excitement of trading art was mounting. I slept and woke up dreaming about a good sale of a few hundred pounds. Making up to fifty or a hundred pounds profit from a single sale was very good but to make a few hundred would be a dream come true. It would be a miracle!

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. 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 two, 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.

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