Hans Hofmann at $10,000 excites the imagination!

June 1986, San Francisco

With the disappointment of the Seago experience history, I looked ahead to sales and catalogues for my next investments. It became very clear to me that on several occasions when I had invested in Modern British art I had made no money of mention. The Seago investment confirmed that and turned me off that market. There is no point in flogging a dead horse! Modern British art was a no-go area for me! Too many investors were chasing the same thing and that limited the profit margins to nearly nothing. Where could I turn my eyes on next and make a sound investment? I did not know, I could not even guess; it was extreme frustration to have money sitting in a bank account.

It was early June and the eagerly awaited Butterfields and Butterfields June catalogue finally arrived. I looked through it quickly, always chasing 19th Century paintings and Impressionists, but nothing caught my attention or attracted me to look further. The collection in that catalogue was poor. Disappointed and frustrated, I put the catalogue aside for another look later. Catalogues, new or old, were revered; they hid the secrets of success and treasures!

Some practices I put into action in this business early on proved extremely helpful and at times highly profitable both in the early days of my dealing life and of course later. Gradually they became habits of immense importance that rewarded the faithful student.

· Buying catalogues and reference books, although expensive, was essential and rewarding.

· Studying new catalogues and names in them many times. That kept the names in my memory bank and helped me when I was in an auction without catalogues or reference books. These I could not carry around as they were too many by now, heavy and cumbersome.

· Writing down names of artists in booklets and memorizing names daily.

· Attending viewings and auctions without fail.

· Revisiting old catalogues time and again; no doubt this assisted me in the quest for bargains.

It was such a revisiting of an old catalogue that woke me up to the contemporary painting of Hans Hofmann in the Butterfields sale. I saw the name in this old catalogue, it rang a bell, but where had I seen it? Which catalogue was it in? Back to the Butterfields catalogue and there it was. What a stroke of luck! What a good student I was and what a possible reward!

Hans Hofmann

(American, [1880-1966] A German born American abstract expressionist artist who profoundly influenced art in the USA with his teaching and his avant-garde art of the 1940s and 1950s. Auction price range $10,000- 6,000,000)

Yes, the Contemporary Art catalogue of Sotheby’s I had bought in October or November 1985 showed two or three paintings of Hofmann selling at $50,000 plus. That was it. Could I trade an American artist in America from west to east? I had traded art from auction to auction in London, I reasoned, why not from San Francisco to New York? San Francisco is as close to New York as London, even though in the same country. I locked on the painting immediately and a frenzy of research in two countries, the UK and USA followed.

Roman, the Butterfields’ expert, informed me that the painting was great! It was colourful and fresh on the market, provenanced by Kootz Gallery and of a very good period. “It’s worth a few thousand more,” he advised me. Excitement!

I was happy with the information, but I was not satisfied with just the few results I had gathered about the artist’s auction sales. I needed to find out more, so I wisely spent a few pounds on the phone. I called Christie’s to find out about their contemporary sales and whether there were any Hofmann works with them. I did not have their November nor March catalogues, but I was informed that the sales of paintings by Hofmann were in the $30,000-50,000 bracket.

It became evident by the end of my research that the Hofmann painting was worth at least double, if not five times as much as the estimate of Butterfields. “Nobody is interested in Hofmann’s work and you can buy it at $10,000,” Roman confided. Was Roman telling me the truth? I always respected his honesty, his opinion on the quality of paintings and his assistance in every deal I had at Butterfields! This was a more important painting however and I was worried in case the expert had a last minute interested party.

I had the funds to invest, the money from the Seago sale, and this was a fantastic opportunity to make a serious profit this time round! Absolutely great! Hofmann was a much more important artist, for a much larger and powerful market and country. This investment seemed far more exciting than the Seago, but surely millions of Americans would see it and of course go for it! Would I be able to buy it at ten thousand dollars? Impossible! American dealers would outbid me for sure! However, there was nothing to stop me from trying to buy and on my own terms.

So why was there such a low estimate? I could not comprehend it. It was a puzzle but what a puzzle to have a headache about! Was there anything wrong with the Butterfields painting? I went over the headache called Hofmann many times and I reasoned:

· Roman was always honest with me, so I concluded quickly, no problem with authenticity!

· The auction estimated conservatively.

· People had not seen the painting or they were not interested in it! After all it was such a splash of black colour on a board. Unattractive!

I had to grab the opportunity and risk the whole bank! Such opportunities rarely appear and if not taken, never reappear. I slept over the issue for nights. I had sleepless nights thinking about the investment and then…

Bid and buy was the firm decision! Besides, I could see nothing more promising to invest in anywhere else. I hoped to buy the Hofmann on the phone that morning in early June and at the reserve price of $10,000. If successful, I would be left with a couple of thousand in the account, literally penniless once again. What a vicious circle, but who was to blame for that? Myself, my addiction to buying art and my desire to accumulate profits quickly and while the iron was hot.

Buying an expressionist painting by a highly significant name at $10,000 was an event one never forgets – more so for an investor who three years earlier could barely afford a one hundred dollars painting. It was all so incredible! Was I in another world dreaming or was it all happening by accident on planet earth? I was lost in the art world. It was a dream world I enjoyed, a world I loved and one that delivered me riches. What a beautiful world!

Four o’clock in the morning London time was like midday for me. The nightbird was up singing much earlier than the auction time, unable to close his eyes, unable to suppress the excitement of a new major investment, impatient for that phone call.

It was finally time. “Six lots to the Hofmann, Mr Constant.” I paid no attention to any other results; all I wanted to know was about the Hofmann.

“How are the colours of the Hofmann, miss?”

“Beautiful, with a running splash of black!”

In no time, the painting I had dreamed of for about two weeks was up for sale. I was a bundle of nerves. Butterflies in my stomach, heartbeat accelerating but determination and iron will to invest. It was my biggest opportunity to buy a very important artist and my most expensive painting ever. I was risking about 80% of my cash. Could I make a 50% profit from this investment?

My wild thoughts and calculations were interrupted by the voice of the auctioneer, “Hans Hofmann.”

“Here we go sir,” intervened the young lady. “Seven thousand, sir! Are you bidding?”

“Yes, seven thousand.”

“Seven five hundred against you. Eight thousand against you,” and it became obvious to me that the auctioneer was bidding himself to reach the reserve.

“Ten thousand, ten thousand against all in the room, on the phone.”

At ten thousand dollars the Hofmann was knocked down to me. Feelings of relief and fear of failure flooded through me at the same time.

“Ten thousand to us, sir. It’s ours sir. Congratulations! It’s a beautiful colourful painting.”

I was ecstatic! This was compensation for the Seago disappointment, I felt sure about it. It was over. I had bought the painting at $11,000 ($1,000 was commissions, no taxes as the work was to be exported to the UK). I was the owner of a contemporary painting by the American Expressionist, Hans Hofmann! What an exciting purchase! Was it a profitable one though? Or would I have another experience similar to the Seago?

It felt unbelievable, but immediately the Hofmann started causing me enormous anxiety and worry. I felt I had made a giant step up in art investments, but I was absolutely unprepared and completely overwhelmed by it. It was just too soon after the start of this venture. Worrying questions started to surface. How do I sell such a painting in another country? How do I get a masterpiece to New York? How do I approach the two major auctions of New York to sell such an important painting so soon after buying it?

The Seago experience at Sotheby’s had been pretty didactic as well as traumatic. Was I prepared for more such events and snooty people or was New York a different environment? I knew that Americans were very down to earth people from the years I spent there, but were the art experts of the same mould? New York’s auctions were unknown to me, but I had to crack that problem and get into the markets there in person! I had already shipped a painting for sale to Sotheby’s and a couple more were ready to be consigned soon. It was worth my while going to the Big Apple and meeting the people I was dealing with in person. It always helped to know them in England, why not in New York?


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