"So-ooooo, how does a guy with your wild and wooly background end up being an art dealer?", asked a reader of this Blog after perusing my Ancient History section. A fair question, but not so quickly answered. It does, however, make for a great story, so I'll share it with you.
Back in the late 1970's, I had moved to Maui, Hawaii after an amicable, yet still intensively emotional divorce .... to sort out my life, dust myself off and get ready for my next life adventure. Thanks to someone insisting that I purchase an Irish Sweepstakes ticket just before leaving for Hawaii, I was able to "retire" for a few years of beach-bum leisure. But after my golf score and my boredom crept up the chart to meet my all-too-quickly declining un-invested capital, I realized that it was time to get back in the game. Ah-hhhh, but what to do?
At that same time, my next door Maui neighbor, Kim von Tempsky, was telling me all about the HUGE amount of sales that were taking place in the art gallery he directed, and suggested that I try my hand at selling "pictures". Not having a better offer, I decided to give it a fling.
Was I an art history major in college? No, but back in my more adventurous early years I had been a police detective chasing down art thieves, which gave me at least a layman's familiarity with fine art. And I had of course been selling myself (a tough product if ever there was one) all my life. So the "Art Of Selling" wasn't a complete mystery to me . . . . many years later I would even write a book on the subject.
Now here's where synchronicity and blind luck comes into play.
On my first day "on the floor", I was instructed to simply watch how the other salespeople handled customers, to listen to their well-rehearsed "pitches" and get a feel for working the gallery and its customers. In other words, keep my ears and eyes open and my mouth shut!
About two hours into my first shift a very grubby, unshaven, wrinkle-suited fellow wandered into the gallery. The sales consultant who was "up" (meaning first in line for the next customer) took one look and promptly left the gallery for a coffee-break. That left me and what was obviously a "street-person" alone in the gallery. The guy moved slowly through the gallery and paused in front of a VERY expensive Picasso original painting. He stared at the painting for a few moments, and then suddenly turned to face me (I was keeping close track of the old bum to make sure that he didn't try to steal something.)
"Hey, does you 'vork here?" he demanded in a thick and slightly slurred accent. I reluctantly admitted to "vorking" there, and the rumpled old man pointed to the Picasso and asked what "da pitcher" was and who did it. I replied that it was a painting done by the famous artist Pablo Picasso .... I'd at least learned THAT much during my training sessions. "How much 'dat Picasso?" asked the fellow. I reached around behind the painting and found the price card. "For-rrrrrrty thous-sssssand dollars," I stammered. That was a lot of money I thought to myself, as I shared the price with the old bum. But he simply nodded, and pointed over to a rare print by Marc Chagall. "How much 'dat one?", he demanded. I peeked at the price card ...."$18,000" I replied with less hesitancy this time. At least, I thought to myself, the old bum had good taste and it let me practice my "spiel" without fear of losing a sale.
After about twenty minutes of this, the old man turned to me and said, "OK, I take this and this and this and this", as he pointed out one after the other of the pieces I had priced for him. I was, of course, completely flabbergasted! "What do you mean by 'take'", I asked. "I buy them all!", he responded with a grin. Then he introduced himself!
Turns out that he was a rare gem dealer who spent his time in the South American jungles buying up uncut diamonds from the native miners and then selling them to the Hasidic diamond merchants in New York City. It was, he told me, a very dangerous undertaking with a rather high "employee turnover". The Amazon jungle was a harsh place to do business; a rough, tough, lawless environment where your life was on the line everyday.
He'd been doing that for the past five years and had amassed a small fortune, almost losing his life several times in the process. To celebrate his safe "retirement", he had flown to Maui for a weeklong fling of pure drunken debauchery, which he was just now ending. Thus his slovenly appearance. As it so happened, he needed some art for the bare walls of a beach-front condo in Florida, which he had just purchased .... for cash! Remember, this was before the Patriot Act and the "know your customer" financial security rules removed $100 bills from most merchandise transactions.
WOW! Talk about not judging a book by its cover. Unbeknownst to me, I had just discovered my own diamond-in-the-rough!
The funniest thing of all was that since I wasn't really supposed to be "selling" anything (and I had not), no one showed me how to write up an invoice or even where they were kept. I had to call the director over and ask him to take it from there, which he did .... to the tune of a $185,000 sale, all in cash! (that's just short of half a million bucks in today's depreciated dollars). To make a long story a bit shorter, my first 10% sales commission check was for $18,500. Need I say more? Seems that I'd found my new niche, and I was off on yet another career -- one that is just now coming to an end.
Of course all through the 1980's art sales boomed, with prices fueled by the Japanese going through the roof being. The Japanese were among the biggest buyers of Impressionist and Modern art, and, with their booming economy of the 1980s, they had the ability to fund their insatiable appetite and paid record prices for the works they wanted … remember the $78 million Renoir and the $82.5 million Van Gogh that Ryoei Saito, a Japanese businessman, bought in May of 1990? Hey, I was helping to sell those "pitchers" to the Japanese tourists on Maui.
Those record-breaking prices lasted for a full 14 years. In 2004 a Picasso sold for $104 million, which I'll bet made my ex-diamond dealer VERY happy indeed with his $40,000 purchase . . . if he held onto it. However, once the rug was pulled out from under the Japanese economy, it crumbled and the art market followed quickly behind. Many of the less important works they bought were just never worth the prices paid, and they could not recoup the money spent.
But during all this, the lawyer from Honolulu who owned that gallery was indicted for selling fraudulent Dali prints and the business fell on hard times. So now being quite disillusioned with the "corporate art jungle", but feeling quite at home as an art consultant, I moved along to set up and curate other art emporiums there on Maui. But now I dealt in "local" art, including some of the most respected artists and master artisans in all Hawaii. The high-priced Dali, Chagall and Picasso paintings and prints were left to others to peddle to unsuspecting wealthy tourists. I had a new niche market to explore, one that I'm delighted to say proved highly successful .... although the prices of the art being sold was rather inexpensive compared to the glory days of my first art sales.
I remember, during the early 90s, sellers coming to our Hana gallery with tiny, crappy (for lack of a better word), Renoirs they bought for more than $500,000 or leaping whale paintings by Robert Lynn Nelson that they purchased for $150,000 - trying to sell them for less than half. Those works should have never been bought for those crazy prices in the first place! However, as I learned early in the game, the customer is always right .... even when he's wrong.
I will, however, now leave the art market to those I have mentored over the past several years. It's rather nice to leave at the top of my game! Success is indeed sweet, and what better place to enjoy the fruits of my "artistic" labor than in Vilcabamba.