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19th Century Paintings’ catalogue at Sotheby’s reveals surprises!

November 1989

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!

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