Adventures In the Art Trade by Richard Humphries

The only difference between myself and a madman is that I am not mad. ~ Salvador Dali

When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained. ~ Mark Twain

“I saw in the paper that Pasquale was acquitted,” my ex-wife said. We were in her kitchen, chatting. We’ve always chatted well. “I couldn’t believe it when they indicted him.” “It’s the art business,” I said, “And unless you are in it, you haven’t a clue, especially when it

comes to a real Miro versus a fake one. Hell, even then you can’t be sure.” “You should write about it, Richard. It would be an easy project for you. All you’d have to do is tell the truth.” A splendid idea. My medications had made me foggy headed for a spell, leaving my writing in a cloud. She was right. All I had to do was tell the truth. Easy-Peasy. My first job in the gallery business was in 1974, my last in 2004. Thirty years slid by while I was distracted learning a few things. About Art. And People. And many

combinations of the two.

. . . At twenty, I was still finding my way in San Francisco, trying to make a living. George V., an antiques importer with a huge warehouse on Battery Street had hired me as a warehouseman, unloading containers of antiques every week from England. Soon, however, the lively Greek guys running the place assigned me to sales. They had noticed I enjoyed talking to customers and had a real enthusiasm for the unusual objects we offered. It was fun. The pay was okay and the location was just a short Vespa scooter ride down from our flat on Telegraph Hill.

I say our flat because things were changing in my life. Over the past few years my family had joined me in San Francisco. First, my kid brother. Then my older brother. Finally Mom and our two younger sisters came West to live in the beautiful city. We had found a large place on Alta Street at the top of Telegraph Hill. It was priced according to the formula still in use by the old-time landlords on the hill; the steeper your climb home, the cheaper the rent. All of us crammed into a three bedroom (one was a large closet) flat at a rate of $325 a month. It was reasonable but not cheap. I needed to make more money.

Now. The manager at the warehouse had given me some great deals on furniture. But, whenever I mentioned an actual raise in my wages his English would fail him. And so I answered the ad in the Chronicle for ‘Art Consultants’ at a gallery on Fisherman’s Wharf. The employer offered a monthly draw and a ‘generous commission/bonus plan’. . . . “The most important rule,” the bearded guy said to me on my first day at Swanson Galleries, “is not to waste the champagne on the customers.” And there was ‘champagne’. Andre’s Sparkling Wine came in cases every week. It was the owner

of the gallery’s inspiration to have us pour ‘champagne’ during any serious sales presentation. Never offer it. Why invite a No thank you? Never ask permission. Excuse yourself, go to the back-room, come out bearing a tray holding glasses and a bottle of Andre’s. The label on the bottle carefully covered with the white linen napkin kept ready for such occasions. “You take her,” Don (the bearded one) said. “Be good practice for you.” She was an attractive Afro-American women and stood before a wall of oil paintings. “Could you tell me about the artist?” she asked. “Of course,” I was at a loss. “Back in a sec.” I nearly ran to the front desk seeking Don’s counsel.

“She wants to know about the artist.” My voice was strained. “Easy,” he said and took another sip from his coffee mug of champagne. “Read this to her.” He yanked open the short file cabinet under the desk and flipped out a folder regarding Maurice Meyer, the creator of the Monterey and Carmel seascapes my very first customer seemed to like. The umpteenth photocopy of ‘About The Artist’ biography was nearly worthless. Apparently, Mister Meyer liked to roam the Monterey Peninsula and paint pictures in his golden years. The photo was good though; silver hair, matching goatee, black turtleneck, nice lighting.

“Let me show you something?” I asked her. Jack Swanson would not have approved. Never ask permission from a prospect. “Follow me?” Leading the good-natured woman to the rear of the gallery, away from the constant noise of the San Francisco Experience theme song booming from the attraction next door, I hung the seascape on the ‘showing wall’. All galleries have such a space. An empty wall, well-lit by lights hooked to a rheostat and faced by comfy seating. A room dedicated to closing the sale. “Please have a seat,” I said as I hung the painting on the wall, my back to the woman. I

turned and found she hadn’t followed my invitation to sit as according to the Sales Manual. What the hell, I’d try my best. We discussed the Monterey coast and the town of Carmel. She was interested and asked for my card. I went to the front desk to choose a card from the boxes left by ex-Art Consultants, scratched out the previous name, wrote mine in. “Don’t let her walk out on you,” Don suggested. “You mind if I jump in?” “Please,” I had no idea of what to do. I followed my associate to the rear room. Donald had the grace to introduce himself, learn her name and ignore my nervousness.

“I see you like Maurice Meyer,” he said. His tone made Mister Meyer a giant in the art world. “How’d you like to see his most recent work? It just arrived this morning.” The woman explained she had to go meet her husband but had time for a quick peek. “Come give me a hand, Richard.” I had never been Richard before in public, always Rick. He turned abruptly and I followed him into the gallery’s storeroom. “Let’s see.” He began sorting through paintings in a rack, a piece of protective corrugated cardboard between each of them. “She liked the blues and greens, didn’t she?”

“Um, yeah.” I had no idea, hadn’t heard a word from her over my excited heartbeat. “I think she did.” “Here. Hold this” He handed a me a large painting, 36 x 48 inches, from the stacks. “But this one is all oranges and reds,” I pointed out.” “Exactly,” he pulled his pocket square from his tweed sport coat. “Get a bottle of Andre’s and glasses.” I put together the tray arrangement as Don swept away puffs of dust from the ‘new’ painting and frame with his hanky. “Show time,” he smiled in an almost evil grin.

The second painting didn’t work at all for her. The champagne offer went unappreciated as well. She extended her hand to me. “Thank you, Richard,” she said, walking past Don and into the crowd of Fisherman’s Wharf beyond our door. “Always use the ‘something just arrived’ ploy,” my self-appointed mentor advised me over his mug of André’s. “And show them something you know they will hate. Makes wanting the piece they like easier. And always make sure the second piece costs more.” “What if doesn’t, though?” “It is what you say it is.” “She said she’ll be back.”

“Look,” Don snorted and took a gulp, “don’t EVER believe in ‘be-backs’. There is no such thing. Besides, she said she’s going to Carmel with her husband.” “Meaning?” “C’mon, Buddy,” I was starting to enjoy our camaraderie. “Carmel has more seascape painters than sand fleas.” I spent the afternoon going over a sheaf of photocopied biographies of the gallery’s artists. Most had their first solo exhibitions at schools and community centers and found their inspiration in Nature and The Sea and The Sunset. It was easy to script a general artist’s biography that would fit them all, with a few personal details,

of course. The artist’s age seemed to be an important category. . . . The woman came back with her husband--an NFL quarterback as it turned out--and I dutifully hung both of the paintings on the ‘Showing Room’ wall. He liked the orangey-reddish Monterey sunset. She still enjoyed the blue-green daylight surf scene. I lowered the lights and the paintings took on a life of their own. There is nothing like a real painting. Really. The husband decided the best compromise was to buy both paintings. His one request was to have the gallery pay the shipping costs.

The sales total was $12,800. After the shipping costs and including a bonus for top consultant of the week I made eleven hundred and eighty dollars for the day’s work. I didn’t know Art, but I knew what I liked. I vowed to be an expert in both. “Do yourself a favor, Bud?” Don asked as we closed up for the day. “Promise me you won’t let that sale make you start believing in ‘be-backs’?” “Sure,” I said, hoping I should have such worries. How many people bought art? Really? . . . My Mom, sisters and brothers let me take them out to a family style place in North Beach. The wine came in carafes, the minestrone in a

communal pot, the spaghetti with meatballs in huge bowls. We drank red wine and laughed. San Francisco felt like home to us that night. The steep walk up Union Street to our flat was a pleasure for the six of us. Life was good. . . . Cover design: www.ryanhumphries.com

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