The Auction Houses Are Never for Faint Hearted
In spite of thirty years in the business and so much experience in buying and selling at auction, there are situations one might think will never happen to anybody but especially to oneself. I never thought that ever but, here I am narrating the impossible that became possible and a true unbelievable story here in London and at Sothebys and Christies London.
Trustworthy and Untrustworthy Experts
Opinion of the Senior Director and expert at Sotheby’s
June 1989, London
Consigning any property at auction is extremely worrying and at times traumatic even for the seasoned traders. Needless to describe how it must feel when it’s only once in a lifetime. Even though the following is just basic advice, please follow this as much as you can. When consigning an important painting for sale at a major auction house one needs to know that:
· It takes about four months from the moment one consigns a work of art with a major auction house till the day of sale.
· There is another wait of about five weeks to receive the proceeds after the sale.
· If the item is very important and there is a need for further research by the auction the whole process will take longer than six months.
Such details are very important especially when a seller needs the money urgently, in which case, a smaller, faster selling auction room might be more appropriate. In such a case one needs to know that:
· Smaller auctions take a shorter time to sell and some sell and pay within one week.
· The negative side of this route is that smaller auctions might sell for less, as they attract a smaller audience and less affluent buyers.
· It might also be more expensive to sell with these fast selling auction houses.
· If there is no urgency to sell, then selling at a reputable auction house is the most rewarding and the one we strongly advise.
The Ralli sat at home for a few months. I enjoyed it, but I could not afford it, in all honesty. The time to take it to the auction was late June, for entry into the November 19th Century European Paintings Sales. The paintings in those sales ranged from £3000 upwards, so I had no worries about any auction accepting the painting.
Setting off from home at about 11.00 with my wife and children, I assumed I would be at Sotheby’s London at about 11.45. I was very hopeful and relaxed about the consignment process. The research was done; I had the latest prices and felt well prepared to defend the painting’s value and possible sale in a top auction. Nevertheless, one can never be sure about anything until the whole business is over and money is in the bank.
Losing money on the Ralli trade was not on the cards. I was one million per cent sure it was an ace! It was a beautiful painting in its heavy contemporary frame and a lot of inborn optimism filled me with confidence, perhaps overconfidence. My wife, however, never comfortable with my art venture, was anxious and apprehensive knowing I had paid top money for the painting. Our two boys played happily in the back of the car, while I at the front waited for events to unfold in a positive, happy mood.
Through Hampstead and then Regents Park with no problems I was soon at Sotheby’s in George Street. On arrival I asked for the director of the 19th century paintings department, whom I knew from earlier consignments and purchases. He was actually one of the experts that had a look at the unsigned Constantinople painting I refer to elsewhere. It always helps when you know the people you are dealing with.
The expert arrived, but he looked as if he was in a hurry. A cold breath of air in mid-summer swept over the consultation room of Sotheby’s. It seemed I had interrupted his business or upset his social life or something, even though he was at work and supposed to be making money for Sotheby’s, wasn’t he? Not a good omen. Polite greetings over and then he was on to the business of examining the painting.
It took the top expert of the 19th century department a few seconds, literally seconds, to look at the Ralli and say quickly, dryly and tersely and I quote, “two to three thousand pounds, I believe.”
“Two to three thousand,” I mumbled, unable to grasp what he was saying. I felt numb, dazed and confused. It took me a few seconds to comprehend what he had just uttered. I could not process the figures and I am good in Maths. Doubting what I had heard, I asked in disbelief, “Did you say £2-3000?”
“Yes, that is my opinion.” I was shocked hearing that figure twice. My head began spinning and my balance began to fail me. I was ready to collapse. Somehow, I composed myself and asked shakily, “Why is that?”
“That is my opinion!”
Was this man out to destroy me? No doubt about that. No mistake – two to three thousand! Come on man! React! Say something! Defend yourself! Defend the painting! Slowly, I was coming back to my senses realizing the seriousness of the situation. Extremely worried and upset, I finally comprehended that that was no joke and no misunderstanding. I was in deep trouble.
Anger took over me. I was boiling mad. I was beyond control and restraint at this point. I was furious.
“Why two to three thousand pounds? Explain to me, why? What was better about the Ralli painting you estimated £6-8000 in one of your sales last year? Was it the fact that it was 20 x 15cm? Was it the fact that it was just an unattractive portrait? I have a popular composition here of 60 x 50 cm and you are telling me £2,000-3,000 estimate? Do you think I stole the painting or found it lying on a pavement?” I screamed at him.
“This is my opinion. If you don’t like it, take your painting somewhere else!”
I couldn’t believe my ears! That was not the director of Sotheby’s I knew! That was no Sotheby’s expert! That was so unlike him! What was the problem? Why so rude? It was unbelievable to me. In no time he was gone and I was left standing in a cold sweat, fuming with rage.
The director had other important matters to deal with and didn’t care about a client, about his business nor about his employers’ business. That was the first and last time I ever experienced such behaviour and attitude at Sotheby’s. This was 1989, five years after I had first done business with the auction house. By then, many experts knew me and I knew well how the auction business was conducted.
I had a good idea what was valuable and what was worthless! How could Mr T and I be wrong at the same time? Virtually impossible! Unsteadily, I walked out of Sotheby’s in a daze. The world had collapsed around me. The top expert of the 19th Century European paintings at Sotheby’s had demolished my dreams and my confidence as a dealer. This was a knockout blow ruining everything. I took it badly, but my wife even more so after I narrated the events to her.
“Why was he so abrupt and so against the painting?” she questioned almost tearfully.
“ I don’t know,” I retorted angrily. “He was in a hurry, he was rude and he wasn’t interested. The b…! He destroyed me in there,” I admitted in defeat.
Yes, your confidence, knowledge and experience can go up in smoke in seconds in the hands of these experts. Watch out! Twenty-six years on but the scars of that event are still with me. They are as vivid today as they were then. How helpless, how unhappy and downtrodden I felt! I hated the man! Perhaps he hated me too. That’s why he was so against the Ralli picture. Down the drains went £10,000. Down went all my dreams, unless he was wrong and biased for reasons of his own.
Was there a way to save the boat? Was there another expert who would look at the painting with a more positive eye and view? Virgin Mary, help me! I crossed myself, I begged and and prayed. I was lost in my misery and inability to think straight and reasonably. The top man at Sotheby’s had condemned me to bankruptcy with his verdict and at the same time destroyed my thinking processes. I was paralysed, in shock.
Opinion of the Senior Director at Christie’s
I sat in the car for a few long minutes, yes completely lost and incapable of thinking. I needed time to recover and regain my senses. Driving was out of the question in that terrible emotional and psychological state I found myself in. I was confused. The world had gone topsy-turvy, my dreams were dashed and my finances were in ruins. On top of that, I had my wife next to me worrying and tearfully pressing, “What are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I have to think. Let me think!” I begged. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it might have been the end of the road for my art venture and business. That investment was about one quarter of all my art investments. The highest investment I had made and it was wrong, according to the top expert at Sotheby’s.
The car was facing south. I switched it on and drove for a minute, or half a minute towards Bond Street and then…inspiration, second time round regarding this painting! No joking! Why not Christies? Unprepared, unplanned, everything on the hoof, which was dangerous, but desperate for a quick solution, “why don’t I go to Christie’s?” I thought out loud. They are as good as Sotheby’s and on many occasions better than Sotheby’s. Turning left on Bond Street I headed down to St James Square. Hope returned, logic returned, instinct and rationale guided me there. It was the second largest auction in the world and right now perhaps bigger than Sotheby’s. I recovered my cool, my composure. Christie’s, why not Christie’s? I know the director of the 19th Century Paintings Department. He helped me before and he might like the Ralli. Besides, Christie’s had sold the artist well before and they do have a good Greek clientele.
While these thoughts were bouncing in my brain, the car carried me to Christie’s main offices on St James Square as if by magic. The roads were empty, the way was clear and free and that was auspiciously positive for a man who believes in omens. I had fallen at the first hurdle with the Ralli, but I was more than capable of getting up and carrying on. I was an experienced dealer/investor by now and I was not going to be put off from seeking a second opinion, a second expertise and perhaps a third one, if need be. It had happened before with smaller value items, it might happen again.
Out of the car in front of the prestigious auction house. My step was quick now, adrenalin running back to normal and my hopes once again as high as if the Sotheby’s affair had never happened. It was very quiet in the main reception, and on asking for Lord Poltimore I was told he would be with me in a few minutes. Lucky, I thought. Good omen.
Heart beating fast, apprehension and unease returning and there was my friend with a huge smile and strong handshake. “Come to this room here. Let’s see what you have got for us,” he encouraged me warmly. I knew the Director of Christie’s from earlier transactions and he had been as good as gold to me in earlier deals. I was at the right place, I felt normal and calm once again. What a difference in reception and attitude? Why didn’t I come here first? Why did I put myself in such trouble by opting for Sotheby’s? I was at ease now! I was more hopeful, my emotions were positive and by the time I reached the private rooms of Christie’s I was once again a confident investor, an investor who could once again defend the painting’s merits and quality!
Have a second and third opinion! Experts err!
The Ralli experiences were not completely new to me. I had had experiences with other paintings where the experts disagreed with my view and my expectations. I chose to look for another option and another auction, where hopefully I would have a more favourable opinion.
Sanderson Wells is a good English artist, mainly of equestrian subjects. I had an oral agreement to take a pair of paintings by him to New York for sale. That I did personally in 1987. Christie’s New York rejected them on the spot as not by the artist. I was very disappointed because I had bought the pair at Sotheby’s, Sussex in England. How could they be wrong? Well, I already knew that experts do make mistakes too. Knowing that very well I sought a second opinion in New York. I took them to Sotheby’s. Their view was that they were not by the artist and so…
Sotheby’s Billinghurst in England sell them as genuine Sanderson Wells, Sotheby’s New York reject them as not by the artist! Interesting, isn’t it?
I was not worried about them being unsold because at worst I could have returned them to Sotheby’s. Remember that there is a guarantee of five years for authenticity at the major auctions, so there were no worries about losing my money. Instead, I offered them for sale in a provincial auction where they sold for £2500. The lesson is crystal clear and it should be learned and applied: have a second and third expert opinion on your artwork. It always helps.
So what happened with the second expertise on the Ralli at Christie’s?
The Christie’s director couldn’t wait to see the Ralli. Lord Mark Poltimore looked at the painting for a few seconds at the front. He turned it round and had a good look at the back, smiled and declared clearly and with no hesitation, “I like it! This is a good painting Peter! How much do you need for it?”
He was kind enough to ask how much I needed to cover my costs. What a contrast to the expert at Sotheby’s who in his own way had thrown me out of Sotheby’s! What a difference of attitude and client care! “I paid £10,000 for it,” I stated timidly, scared to mention the high figure I had paid in Athens.
“No problem, we can sell it well. I like it. It’s very attractive and commercial. No worries!”
“How much do you feel it might sell?” I asked hesitantly. I was indeed afraid. The shock at Sotheby’s had not gone completely.
“I would think about £15,000,” he stated confidently. “What is your feeling about it? You know better than me!”
That statement of Lord Poltimore made me feel good. I was considered an expert on Greek art! Perhaps he was polite in saying that, but perhaps he believed that too.
“I believe between £15-20,000 on a good day.” That’s how much I thought it was worth the first time I set eyes on the painting.
Confidence returned, optimism returned and the Ralli was the masterwork once again. It was a collector’s gem and the expert at Christie’s supported what Mr T and I believed. How I wish I had never gone to Sotheby’s in the first place! How I wish I had dealt directly with Christie’s and Lord Poltimore! Yet, I was still worried and anxious. The seeds of doubt had been sown at Sotheby’s. It was hard to forget the hammering in the hands of their top expert. Damning expertise, hard to discount, but equally impossible to accept.
The consignment documents were ready within minutes and the whole business was concluded in about fifteen minutes. Those were dream saving minutes for my art venture or should I call it adventure? I could not afford a huge loss! Simply, I would probably have gone under, if the Ralli had proved wrong.
Saying goodbye to Mark Poltimore, he added encouragingly, “Don’t worry. We will sell it very well. It’s a lovely painting with a great subject from a very good artist.”
I literally flew out of Christie’s and into the car where my wife was waiting anxiously for good news, in more agony than I was a few minutes earlier.
“Good news! Great news! He liked it and it will go into the November sale with an estimate of £10,000-15,000. He believes it will sell for about £15,000.”
I was a different person now and absolutely thrilled with the events at Christie’s, but I could not forget the events at Sotheby’s. They were unprecedented, they were unbelievable and they were unacceptable by any standards and any circumstances. Why had Sotheby’s Director behaved like that? Why did he treat me in that way? What did he have against me or against the painting?
The two experts had a completely different opinion and that was something very rare. The opinion was 500% different in estimate, the opinion was, “I do not like it,” with Sotheby’s and “I love it,” with Christie’s. That does not happen often, if ever! I was in the dark! I was puzzled and confused and needed answers for my peace of mind!
Great Ending with Many Obstacles and Hussles!
24th July 2015
19th Century Paintings’ catalogue at Sotheby’s reveals surprises!
The summer of 1989 was very long. I was in the middle of serious investments in art, improving my domestic life and looking hopefully towards the future. Living in hope for the Ralli painting and dreaming about the Exter painting’s potential, time passed unobserved. Several small value paintings were bought and I was active in many areas and fields. Alexandra Exter and the Russian Avant Garde was one very serious area I was educating myself in. Exter was a great artist to invest in, in 1988 and at that price.
The issue of the rejection of the Ralli by a top expert at Sotheby’s was playing on my mind and puzzling me nonstop. It was impossible to forget it, as everything that had happened was inexplicable. A Sotheby’s expert treating a good client like that was really extraordinary. It was sitting heavy on my stomach and kept me questioning and reliving the horrible episode week in week out. Why had he delivered such a devastating blow? Why had he been so rude, unfair and abrupt? I felt it had been deliberate, but I could not put my finger on his motives. I had been stabbed in the back and would feel satisfied to take revenge with a serious complaint about his expertise. My plan was to wait for the sale at Christie’s and, if the painting did well, complain to Sothebys’ management. I never keep quiet when I am in the right and I accept responsibility for the things I do wrong.
Please do not keep quiet when you know people have been unfair and unjust! Complain and take your case higher and higher! If you must take a case to court, then you should!
Important auction catalogues come out about three to four weeks before a sale and I was eagerly awaiting the 19th century ones from Christie’s and Sotheby’s. For some reason I was expecting a piece of information to complete the puzzle that had started four months earlier. Was it instinct, irrational mind setting, craziness, hopelessness or what?
Christie’s catalogue came first and the Ralli looked exceptionally attractive. Estimated at £10-15,000, it was beautifully illustrated in colour and placed in a very good spot in the catalogue. It was great work by the expert. I could not be happier. Another Greek painting was also in the sale and both paintings looked magnificent. That would attract the buyers, I thought happily and optimistically.
A day or two later, the catalogue from Sotheby’s arrived. Flicking through the pages, nothing caught my eye, no surprises but then…then I gasped. I shouted! I screamed! I screamed time and again!
“The crook! The cheat! ! I have him now! I’ve got him!” I screamed wildly. I was beyond control! I went crazy! “That’s it! That’s it!” Who keeps me quiet? “What a con!”
Finally, I knew why Sotheby’s expert had been so rude and so out of character. I knew why he had sent me packing within a minute, in a manner I had never encountered at Sotheby’s ever before or since. Let me add and make absolutely clear right now. I have sold and consigned at least one hundred paintings with Sotheby’s over the years and have never received such treatment by any expert, regardless of the quality of my property and that also included that man up to that moment. He had accepted paintings for sale on many other occasions from me but had never behaved rudely or in any way inappropriately at any time before the Ralli event.
Staring at me was a painting catalogued as by Theodore Ralli and estimated at £6,000-8,000, which was bought as a T. Ralli a few months earlier by an investor. What a monstrosity! What an affront to the artist! What a terrible painting to be catalogued as a Jacques Theodore Ralli, when it was obviously signed by somebody called T. Ralli Scaramanga! What a terrible error of judgement by the director! The top director of the 19th century paintings department at Sotheby’s had included in his sale a painting which, to any amateur, was clearly not a Theodore Ralli, while at the same time had rejected a beautiful, genuine Theodore Ralli.
Yes, I was astounded. This man, I was convinced, knew that he was intentionally cataloguing a work of art that was clearly not by the Greek artist Jacques Theodore Ralli. Why wasn’t the painting a genuine Ralli?
· The subject of that painting, a peasant sitting with a pipe, was not even close to any known work by Ralli.
· The style of the painting bore no resemblance whatsoever to the classical style of the artist.
· The painting was signed T. Ralli Scaramanga, another artist.
Yet ‘the expert’ had included it in his sale with an estimate of £6,000-8,000, whereas the real McCoy had been rejected with the words “that’s my opinion” and “£2,000-3,000 I believe.”
It was not difficult now to put two and two together. Clearly he did not want a second Ralli in the catalogue that would be such a contrast to the one he had already included. Lot 309 of the 19th Century European Paintings Sale of Sotheby’s of 22nd November 1989 was blatantly, clearly and unquestionably a painting by another hand signed T. Ralli Scaramanga, something that Theodore Ralli never did with any painting of his. That was the reason the expert had rejected my property. His interests and loyalty lay with that other vendor, not with myself or with his employers.
I was in a rage. I was like a lion let loose, ready to tear into pieces the man who had caused me so much aggravation and heartache four months earlier. Intentionally! Yes, intentionally and knowingly! That was unforgivable, that was unprofessional. It was an outrage and I was out for revenge. The professional expert had intentionally condemned my property. Rare but possible! My mission was to disgrace him to his superiors and have him fired! He was a rogue expert and Sotheby’s were unaware of all the events. Management had trusted the man but was he trustworthy? Sellers and buyers trusted him, but was he to be trusted? No, he was not and I knew that. I had experienced it. He did not belong in an auction house where ‘trust’ and ‘honesty’ has been the cornerstone of their business and success.
Nothing could have stopped me! I sat down immediately and wrote a letter to Sotheby’s demanding the immediate withdrawal of Lot 309, the oil painting catalogued as by Theodore Jacques Ralli in the sale of 22nd November, because it was a fake and not by the hand of Theodore Ralli. Furthermore, I complained how such a painting came to be included in such an important sale by the experts in charge. I did not mention my own property with Christie’s nor the actions of their expert related to that Ralli. Not yet! I needed the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place. The sale at Christie’s! If my painting sold well and over £10,000, then I would conclude the last part of my revenge.
The painting was withdrawn from the sale at Sotheby’s, but I never received a letter of acknowledgement nor thanks for letting the auction know. Understandable, I would think! How could they accept such a serious mistake by one of their experts? Impossible and inconceivable! How could they accept dishonesty by the protégé of the then CEO of Sotheby’s?
My serious complaint and direct attack on the expert was not to be launched until the sale of Ralli at Christie’s took place. He surely chose the wrong person to play his games against and everything now was turned against him. Nobody is invincible and to me he was an easy target now! But the last act was still to be played!
The Ralli sale at Christie’s
The month of October and November dragged on a little with minor sales. The Ralli sale at Christie’s was the prime one of 1989 and I could not wait for it to happen – over-excited, anxious and worried, apprehensive and almost fearful of a bad result. A good sale promised a lot for the coming months; a bad sale was unthinkable!
Supply teaching was not for me on the 24th November 1989. Art trading was much more exciting and rewarding. The day of the sale finally arrived and I made my way to Christie’s early on in the morning, full of hope, but with plenty of anxiety and uncertainty. One never feels 100% sure about what is to happen in an auction sale. My experience spoke of certainties that went wrong and great results when least expected.
On arrival in the main selling rooms of Christie’s I couldn’t recognize any Greek faces. It was disappointing, but as the Greek paintings were coming up for sale much later I expected that anybody interested would arrive about one hour into the sale. There were only two Greek paintings in the sale, an Argyros and the Ralli as lots 119 and 122 – both lovely paintings and deserving a good reception, I felt.
There was absolute silence in the packed saleroom as Lord Poltimore, the auctioneer, commenced the sale. The sale was brisk with a lot a bidding, which raised my expectations. That was a good omen as such action usually sets the tempo and prices of the items. A room full of bidders is almost a guarantee for a very good sale. At about 12.30 it was the turn of the first Greek painting, the one by Umbertos Argyros. It was an impressive painting estimated at £6,000-9,000 that sold very well for £15,500 including commissions, a record for the artist. The Greek buyers were there and I saw three bidding in the room, plus one more on the telephone. I was so pleased with that sale. I suspected that the Ralli would be received as enthusiastically as Argyros, because Ralli was a considerably more important artist.
Soon enough the painting was up on the rostrum. The usual symptoms when selling something were there – nerves and nerves, clammy hands, thumping heart and a sick stomach!
The bidding began and all was quiet. Very quiet! It was very sluggish to start with and I began to panic. Had I made a serious error? Had I bought wrongly and paid too much! Had Sotheby’s top expert been right all along? My pulse was racing, sweat was pouring over me. I was as red as a pepper and alarm bells were ringing, but Lord P was as cool as a cucumber!
What did the auctioneer know? What ace did he have up his sleeve? He managed to extract thousand by thousand from a member of the audience and a telephone bidder and reached the £10,000 reserve. I was so, so relieved. Ten thousand makes it possible for me to carry on, even if I lose a little money on commissions, I encouraged and consoled myself. Then all of a sudden, a Greek lady sitting in the front row of the auction room started bidding against the phone. She had sat like a cat, waiting to buy the Ralli for a song.
“Eleven thousand against the phone,” continued Lord P.
“Twelve thousand against you madam.” Pile on the thousands Mark, please do! Not in two hundreds as the Dyf in 1988.
I was hanging on the edge of my seat losing control of events, but I could follow the numbers. It was so unexpected, yet it was so much what I expected to happen. It was expected, but now that it was happening, I could not believe it. Thousand by thousand increments the price was reaching my initial estimate of the value of the painting. Better than the Hofmann in New York three years’ earlier.
“Sixteen thousand against you on the phone,” smiled the auctioneer looking around. He could see me, he was happy. He was right with his cataloguing and I was right with my expectations. I was so excited that in a way I lost the bidding part and turned on the revenge. Terrible, I was!
“Seventeen thousand against you madam.” There were wider smiles on Lord P’s face. He was happy for me. I was so grateful to this man, a friend, I felt, a real friend.
“Nineteen thousand I have on the phone now, do you bid twenty, madam? Twenty I have in the room,” he turned to the phone and I lost touch with him and the bidding. Too much excitement, too much happening, and I poor soul was no longer able to follow the events in the room. It was the second bidding war on a property of mine. My heart was still beating to breaking point but I was not in agony and uncertainty any more.
“Twenty one thousand I have on the phone madam. Are you bidding?” asked Lord P. loudly and finally. The nod was negative, the sale was over and lot 122, the Ralli, was sold for £23,500 including commissions. It was a great success, a great investment and all thanks to Mr T and Lord Poltimore.
Yes, it was a new auction record for a Ralli painting at Christie’s London. Yet, the Director of 19th Century European Paintings at Sotheby’s had rejected that same painting all because he had a wrong painting in his sale. I was not to sit quiet, was I? I had to vent my anger and my sheer disgust at the events of that summer and the treatment I had received at Sotheby’s. I needed moral compensation. I had to work a little more in order to assist in honest and fair expertise.
The general public needed protection from rogue experts and I felt it was my duty to work towards that!
So the odyssey of the Theodore Ralli came to an end as far as its sale was concerned! It was my best result from a private purchase. It was the best ever result for me in London up to that point.
My plans for revenge were now perfectly complete. I was now armed with all the evidence I needed to discredit the expert at Sotheby’s and accuse him of misconduct. I had to deal with him at Sotheby’s and get that heavy weight off my chest and my back! The art business needed no such persons in seriously important positions.
The complaint and consequences of unprofessional expertise
When the iron is hot, one must strike and strike hard. The feelings of revenge were immensely strong in me and as strong as when the unfortunate Ralli event happened at Sotheby’s five months earlier. I was extremely hurt and felt betrayed by an auction I was close to.
Rejecting a genuine, expensive painting by saying, “it’s my opinion”, is fine. Rejecting that fine painting and cataloguing a fake in the same sale is another matter. Rejecting a painting that was to yield the employer £4000 commissions in 1989 was also serious and needed to be explained to his superiors. Such actions by the expert shook the trust I had in Sotheby’s, but more so in the man at the head of this paintings department. Auctions survive and thrive on TRUST! How could a person like that be trusted?
As a duty to myself and to other vendors too, I had to complain vigorously. I expected recriminations and penalties in some way. Yes, I expected punishment for the damage caused. As we all know, no employer will tell anyone who is complaining what happens within closed doors, but at least action needs to be seen as taking place at some point.
Immediately the Ralli sale was over, I sat down and wrote a detailed letter to the General Manager and Business Director of Sotheby’s. I was very polite but bitter and direct with my accusations. I vividly and accurately described the events that led to the sale at Christie’s. Obviously they knew nothing of what had taken place between their expert and myself in June 1989. However, my earlier letter demanding the withdrawal of the Ralli was ample proof that I was relaying to them a very true event and story. I was a catapult of accusations and damaging claims against their expert.
As a matter of fact they were not just claims, they were facts, it was the truth, the plain and honest truth! I was scathing about their expert whose opinion and expertise had sent the Ralli over to Christie’s. I also conveyed the bitterness I felt that a loyal client had been sent packing in such a manner by their head of department. I concluded by questioning whether Sotheby’s could afford to lose such business to their rivals just because the head of their 19th Century art department had other interests at heart rather than his employers’.
So, what happened next? What did Sotheby’s do once my complaint arrived?
I never received an answer to my complaint. I never heard from any Sotheby’s official with regards to the issue. Unofficially, I heard by an insider in the department that the expert was under serious pressure and in trouble. Regardless, Sotheby’s have favourite employees in places. The Senior Director remained in London for a few more years. As a reward, I assume, he was made director of a more important art department in New York. Who was protecting such an untrustworthy person? Draw your own conclusions!
All’s well that ends well! The end of the experience with the Ralli painting could not have been better. I had made a handsome sum of money to re-invest in another painting hopefully as good as the Ralli. Was Greece the right place to invest in and would another great opportunity arrive? I live in hope and believe in LUCK!
Legal responsibilities of auctions
The major auction houses have a history of hundreds of years and therefore laws, rules and regulations that govern their operation. Serious auctions are responsible to both vendors and buyers for what they sell. They must protect both parties by cataloguing correctly and accurately and according to their conditions of sales. Thus:
· If you purchase an item that is wrongly described, you have options to recover the money in question. Return the object as bought within five years of purchase at the major auctions and they will refund your money. Smaller auctions offer various lengths of guarantee.
· If an auction refuses to refund money without a valid reason, then you can sue the auction for misrepresentation. Reasons for such action might be: wrong artist, wrong signature, incorrect description of the medium of execution, incorrect description of the material of the item eg canvas, board, paper etc, concocted provenance or history of exhibitions.
· If you sell an item through auction and it was sold well below its real value because of misrepresentation by the auction, then you can demand compensation for the lost revenue. If you are refused, you may sue the auction for loss of income. Such cases do occur and it is not unwise to ask for a second and third opinion when selling in order to make sure that all is fine with regards to expertise. Do not get rid of a work of art based on the expertise of just one person. It might be the worst mistake you ever commit.
· The law protects both buyers and sellers and makes auctions responsible for what they sell! Do not forget that and do not be put off by lame arguments from auctions in support of their mistakes!