Drawing from life


By Paulette Thenhaus


What's it worth?


Anyone following the art market knows the market has "overheated" and is now in a cool down mode. At an auction earlier this month, a Christie's representative claimed that the art house got a third less than it expected. Paintings went without bids. Manet’s "Young Girl on Bench,"1850, expected to bring $12 million to $15 million ... had no taker. Bids for a classic Rothko painting from 1960 estimated at 20 million to 30 million, opened at $10 million. It had no buyer either.

Today's blue-chip art buyer is described as, "Responsible, intelligent…less speculative." This can be interpreted as, "They watch their Gucci pocketbooks." Bad news for artists and art dealers.

If respected art houses are stuck with great art, what about the average Joe Art Collector? Do you want a real life story about David (D), an art collector, and Paulette (PT), an artist and appraiser? Maybe it will answer (indirectly) some of your questions on appraising and selling your Aunt Lulu's barn scenes...

Meet D. Unlike the above described buyers of art, he made his money gambling on the ponies. Bidding at art auctions made him as high as betting horses. With no art training or art education, he bought what he liked. Hundreds of artworks ranging from a Motherwell collage to a Jess (a Bay Area favorite) painting.

His random collection is finally catalogued and in his "gallery," an expensive, rented, walk-in storage space in the heart of San Francisco. There's even coffee and sometimes sweets for the upscale renters. Of course, D wants to sell, not store his treasures. To do this he realizes it requires major research. So when he e-mailed me about a St. Louis artist we both knew of (D and I are both St. Louis natives) a wacky e-mail journey into art sales began:


MARCH 25, 2007

D: What do you know about Fred Conway? I want to sell a fight scene of his. What do you think I can get for it?

PT: You know I couldn't appraise an artwork without SEEING it…dimensions, etc.

D: Duh, I know that.

PT: The Conway I saw (for sale at an antique shop) it was there for YEARS at $125. That doesn't mean anything now (20 years later) ... maybe in the $500's. Just a guess. A fight scene sounds neat but you can't hang it in most living rooms in St. Louis.

D: They don't fight in St. Louis?

D: Have you heard of Jess?

PT: Yes, I saw Jess in CA. He's got at least one piece in the Durant Museum in Berkeley. I think he is hot. Is he still alive?

D: No, died a couple of years ago.

PT: That could make a difference.

D: “The deader the better,” say the gallery people.

PT: I think he is very prolific in the Bay Area. No one knows him here ... but what do you expect?

D: Nothing, I'm trying to sell it HERE.


LATER ON MARCH 25, 2007...

D: Yes, I know about Fred Conway (probably referring to $125 price tag). I want to sell it to someone who has major interest. Have to buy groceries soon. Here it is (photo of fighters). Not a great job of photography but it is okay.


AUGUST 13, 2007

D: OW! I was doing some research on Fred Conway and looked at the oil I have. It is dated 1973. Thought he died in 1972. Dang, it must be another Fred Conway. I am up to my eyeballs in disappointment lately. Was just to write a St. Louis gallery when I checked the piece again.

PT: D., See, artists CAN PAINT IN HEAVEN!

D: I guess.

PT: What? Did you read the date wrong or was it a fake signature?

D: I asked the guy at the gallery for a copy of his signature and whether he would be interested in consigning it but haven't heard from him yet...

PT: Hope this guy is interested in selling it for you.

D: Me too.


AUGUST 14, 2007

D: I have some work to be in auction next month but I wasn't thrilled with the estimates of what they might get. Some of them are going for what I paid for them twenty years ago! One is a Robert Motherwell and the other is a Henry Moore piece on paper. I have been increasingly overwhelmed lately.


AUGUST 15, 2007

D: Sorry about the heat. I am wearing a sweater right now. I'm not getting the big name prices that I anticipated. I am going through some discouragement. Lots of money and lots of time probably wasted to some degree. Hope to have a few good moments to think about things.


AUGUST 17, 2007

D: From the St. Louis Gallery:

Your painting IS by the St. Louis Fred Conway, I am something of an expert on his works. I wrote a book on him and nine other artists and have sold countless Conway paintings. Congratulations, you have a fine example of this artist's work.



D: From the St. Louis Gallery:

Sorry for the delay in responding to your e-mail. I have been traveling and only recently returned. If you would like to sell or consign your Conway painting we would be pleased to have it. I would estimate a retail price of $1,500. If you would like an outright purchase I will offer $750. If you would like to consign the piece I will try to net you $1,000. This of course is contingent upon viewing the painting.



PT: Don't you think the art market is a little like the housing crisis...overpaid...can't sell? $750 may not be a million but what is your rent now? Poor Fred probably only got $100 for it in his lifetime. One more point: Fred Conway is a regional artist and I doubt much known nationally. This effects the $$$.


SEPTEMBER 17, 2007

D: From the Gallery:

Thanks for keeping on top of the tracking. The painting arrived today in good shape. I will make some calls and see if we can find a home for it. I will also be forwarding a consignment agreement shortly.


OCTOBER 24, 2007

D: Check arrived. Have had a bad bronchial and sinus attack. Feeling a bit better. Hope all is well.



It only took eight months for the sale but it did sell. You want to know for how much. Funniest thing is that I forget. I know it was at least $750, which is only about $250 more than I appraised it for... sight unseen. Let's just say the search for a home for the artwork was more exciting than the final sale price.