Chapter XXV Bargain Hunting in Paris while Blindfolded

The early 1990s were a constant battle of survival. Buying cheaply and selling at high percentage profits was the aim. There were no boundaries as far as location was concerned but money was limited and hard to come by. The small amounts made in the early 1990s kept the business going, teaching made life at home comfortable and the restless art investor maintained the enthusiasm and belief in the opportunities existing all over the globe.

A trip in the dark and a £300 gamble – Nicolas Ghika

April 1997, St Germain-en-Laye, Paris – October 1997, Sotheby’s London

The 1990s pointed out clearly two major lessons:

· New York was the place to sell fine art and get returns of about 100-200%

· Greek art returned between 100-400% either at auction or in private sales at exhibitions in London or Athens

There was no reason to change the formula even though it gradually became harder to buy fine art cheaply enough to send to New York. By 1997 too many investors were chasing too few bargains and the competition was stiff. However, that could not be said about Greek art, where it was still possible to buy a small bargain at auction worldwide, as well as privately in Athens.

The small, unimpressive catalogue arrived from Paris and I eagerly started scanning the entries and images of paintings. Was there a bargain? Was there anything Greek? Gounaro, Fassianos, Tsingos, Gaitis, Samios? Was there anything else by artists who had worked in Paris in the twentieth century? It was on the fourth or fifth page that an entry stopped me in my tracks and nearly popped my eyes out!

‘Niclas Ghika’ it read. There was no image, no other information except an enticing, inviting, tantalising 500 euros (£350) estimate for an oil on canvas, so loosely described, that you had no idea what it really was.

Nicolas Hadjikyriacos-Ghika

(Greek, [1906-1994] Top artist of twentieth century Greek art. He is found in top collections in Greece and worldwide. His art is housed in the best museums all over the globe. Auction price £2000-400,000)

Was this a real, genuine Nicolas Hadjikyiacos-Ghika, the famous Greek artist of Modern Greek art, the top Greek artist of the second half of the twentieth century? It was possible as he had lived in Paris for many years and was collected by famous, well-heeled people worldwide. But there was no information, no image, no provenance or literature to start a search. How frustrating and upsetting was that?

It was Thursday and the sale was on the following Sunday, 10th March 1997.

The estimate of 500 – 800 euros was laughable, if indeed the painting was by him. I had already bought two Ghika drawings of much smaller size in 1988 for two thousand pounds each. A painting of Ghika of that size, whatever the quality, was surely worth thousands of pounds and perhaps tens of thousands of pounds. The market indicated an average price of twenty thousand pounds, if size was anything to measure things by. Have in mind that the value of art is determined by:

· Size

· Colouration

· Subject

· Period of execution

· Medium (oil, gauche, watercolour, pencil, print)

· Provenance and literature

· The artist’s name and signature

What was the Paris auction up to? Was it a trap to attract Greek buyers? Was it a synonymity? I could not tell. I could not rest and could not relax! I was floating on my usual dream trip of bargains, profits, investments and art adventures. Who wouldn’t like an adventure of that kind accompanied by very high rewards too?

Art! Stimulating, challenging, inviting, rewarding!

I waited for Saturday morning, the day of viewing. My call was to find out more about the piece. Was the painting signed? What was the colouration like? What was the subject of the painting? I was very familiar with the artist’s work having seen a good number of his paintings in the National Gallery in Athens and at a Ghika exhibition in London at the Royal Academy. I had also seen several of them at auction and in Mr T’s private collection. Furthermore, an acquaintance and relative of the artist had a very good collection of the artist’s work, which I was lucky enough to have seen and admired. I was confident I could say what a Ghika painting should look like.

The phone call to the auction went through quickly and I was lucky the assistant was helpful and not that busy. I needed help, quite a bit of help and somebody who spoke English.

“Can you describe the colours of lot… the Ghika, to me, please?”

“They are pastel colours of green and brown. It is an interesting painting, sir.”

“Is it signed, sir?”

“Yes, it is signed Ghika in the front and also signed on the reverse and titled too. It is a good painting, sir!”

I put the phone down and fell into serious thought for about ten minutes. I had a dilemma to overcome, but in those ten minutes I reasoned and decided firmly. I can get to Paris by train in three hours tomorrow morning. It will cost me £100-150, but it might be my lucky day. If I stay in London, there won’t be another possible Ghika anywhere. Besides, there might be something else to buy in that sale, if the painting turns out not to be a Ghika. I was determined and very focused on buying Greek art, which time and again had rewarded me handsomely in spite of hiccups here and there. In any case, I fancied a bargain hunt in Paris. Why not?

Bargains are everywhere; they only need to be chased and grabbed!

Without much more deliberation, I picked up the phone and made a reservation on Eurostar first class. I might as well travel in style, I thought to myself. With the travelling formalities over I could not wait for the trip to France the following day and the chance to see ‘The Ghika’? I was ready to bid up to £7000, all my bank, as I felt the work was worth double that amount, if genuine. That was roughly what the sales in Athens pointed out and slightly higher, if sold privately.

Paris auction a joke! You cannot be serious!

My trip to Paris took three hours, but by the time I arrived at the auction house just outside Paris it had gone past 1.00 pm, and it was lunchtime, the French way. Do not ask the French to miss their lunch, especially Sunday lunch! Impossible! It’s an anathema!

Outside the auction house, a semi-classical building in the picturesque suburb of Paris St Germain-en-Laye, I went round and round in circles. Could this be the auction house? It was hermetically closed and everything round it was deserted. No sign of life. No offices to see no doors to knock on. No bells to ring, no phone boxes to call! Was I at the right place or was it a desperate trip and wishful thinking? I had the catalogue, but I doubted everything about it when inspecting the area around the auction. The leafy streets of St Germain-En-Layes looked abandoned; shutters were shut, gates were locked and not a soul to be seen.

I doubted myself, I doubted my sanity and I doubted the catalogue I had at hand! The auction could not be closed with just an hour to go before the sale, I reasoned. My worry was immense, my anxiety huge. I felt dizzy because of the four hours’ trip and my brain was in reverse. Frustration immeasurable, anger increasing, demons of doubt possessing me the closer to two o’clock it got. I walked round the auction address like a madman for the tenth time, waiting for a sign of life, something stirring, something living. Not a soul! No sign of life inside the locked up auction house nor outside it.

Desperation had set in! Going round and round in circles at a faster pace, I felt I was over the edge! It was almost two o’clock when a couple of people arrived and stood outside the auction door. They were holding that flimsy catalogue I had kept checking and re-checking for errors. Thank God, I am at the right place, I breathed in relief! Finally and at 2.10 the doors of the auction house were pushed open from inside. Where were those phantoms? Where had they come from?

Wasting no time, I rushed inside the auction building looking around for paintings inside the huge room. What the hell is going on, I fumed? There were no paintings hanging on the huge expanse of walls, only stacks of them on the floor next to the auctioneer’s rostrum. My heart sank. Such a rush to arrive early was futile and now inside the auction room I could not see the painting I had travelled all the way from London for. It was hugely frustrating. I felt like screaming! Calm down, cool, impatient investor! There was only one option left and that was not so good.

“Can I see lot number…please?” I begged one of the attendants.

“I’m afraid it’s under there, sir. There are about eighty paintings on top of it. We cannot remove them to see just that one. May I suggest you sit in the front row here, and when the painting comes up for sale, have a good look at it?”

I pleaded, but to no avail. I felt like running away in disgust. I felt sick! I felt faint! I needed fresh air. Four hours on trains, all that way from London and I couldn’t even see the painting before it was auctioned! Depressed and with the hope of a Ghika decreasing by the second, I sat in the first row of seats helpless and waited – in fury.

“Sit in the front and wait.” That was a joke, for sure, I mumbled to myself furiously. That was disgraceful! What kind of auction is this? Where have I come to, I wondered? Yes, I did not know this auction house. I did not know how they conducted their business. I did not know whether the painting I was after was a deliberate attempt to attract the Greek bidders. This auction was definitely no Sotheby’s, no Christie’s nor Bonhams. I found out throughout this business that auctions have different systems and ways of doing business and I learned to accept their ways and live by them. That auction was way different to anything I had experienced up to that day.

Having no alternative, feeling as sick as a dog, I sat in the front row hopelessly waiting for the supposed Ghika to be auctioned. It seemed an eternity, but actually it was very quick as the sale was terrible. Paintings were passed over, one after the other, without any bidding. It was one of those dead auctions with only about a dozen buyers present. One exception was a small Greek painting, a minute painting, I might add, by the Greek artist Thanos Tsingos, which sold for 800 euros. I was not interested in Tsingos, a small fish on the day; I was after a much bigger fish.

The sale of that painting convinced me that those buyers would push the estimate of the Ghika picture too and make my day a complete hell. Such a thought sent me into further worry and despair, but I was there and I had to go through the ordeal and suffer! Even bargain hunting entails suffering and heartaches of a high degree. I was hanging from a thread of hope. Simply it was desperation! What else could it be?

Two hundred and fifty euros to you! What a fake!

With very little bidding on earlier lots my turn for action came quickly. Too quickly to be ready!

The Ghika is up for sale and all seems like a dream. The assistant holds it up firmly for bidders to see, but at two metres away I can’t see well. I get up, move two steps forward, try to look for a moment or two, but the auctioneer pays no attention to me. I am an unknown face and name to her. She is in a hurry to finish the auction and get rid of the audience, a runaway train trying to beat the clock and crash unceremoniously into a river or ravine perhaps!

“Five hundred euros for the Ghika,” she asks looking round swiftly. Fortunately for me no hand goes up, no nodding of the head or waving of a catalogue. It happens so quickly, it is like a hundred metres dash. Before I manage to put my hand up, as I’m still trying to sneak a look at the painting, I hear, “two hundred and fifty euros!”

My hand shoots up like a piston not worrying whether I am buying junk or gold. I act on instinct! I am in a dream or rather a nightmare à la French! I am there. I have to bid. Caution for two hundred and fifty euros is silly and stupid now! A fake can be worth that much.

“To you sir!” shouts the triumphant auctioneer, smiling happily and registering my paddle number. The hammer thunders down with a deafening bang, loud enough to raise the dead, and I am the owner of the questionable Ghika. Auctioneer, assistants and the whole room look happy and smile coyly. Are they laughing at me? Stupid man! Yes, I can still see the sneers. Whoops! Caught, you clever expert in Greek art!

I had bought the fake Ghika! What else could it be at two hundred and fifty euros! O là là! I couldn’t believe what had happened, everything in split seconds. It was like lightning and the thunderbolt had hit me. I was paralysed, numb and floating dizzy. I didn’t know what to make of it. I had bought something by 50% less than the original estimate, even though by accident. I should have been pleased, but I was unhappy! Disappointed! Hugely worried! Everything seemed too shady and unprofessional. Fake, I whispered! Fake! I sank in my chair! Crooked business, I whispered! Damn it! Blast it! The French have caught me once again!

It can’t be a Ghika! Impossible under the circumstances!

I had gambled 300 euros (22.5% commission included) and was still in the dark. I had bought something I hadn’t seen really. Whilst they wrapped the painting at the collection area I had a momentary closer look and my spirits lifted a little. It seemed a strange painting, but fine as far as quality was concerned. However, that was a very quick look, a very inconclusive glance by a very biased new owner.

I did not even look at the Sergei Ponomarew pointillist painting I had paid another three hundred euros for. I was speculating in art. I was an addict and going to Paris and returning empty handed was not on the cards. Yes, I had an addiction to punting on art, but I knew this was backed up by knowledge and expertise acquired over time and hard work. How many others could say the same?


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