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The Turn

More than one banker has looked at me over half-moon spectacles across a paper-strewn desk and declared that I should turn my inventory several times a year. Nearly fifty years into it, I can only confess that I never have—a fact that has prompted my financiers to reach for the antacids ad nauseam. Who knew? There are so many things about business that time and tide have taught me. I probably do carry more inventory than I can adequately do justice to, but I am a patient man, content to hold my hand and allow good pictures to find their place. Sellers of seasonal goods and manufacturers must naturally concern themselves with principles of inventory turn. My stock only appreciates, and so long as we generate the dollars to pay our way in the meantime, then some horses are best left stabled.

Sometimes, of course, we desperately want to sell a piece and for whatever reason cannot. The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson was such a work—so singular and sizeable, outrageously expensive in both its carrying costs and practical inconveniences. That said, however, given the opportunity, I would buy it again. And I sleep well knowing that masterwork surely ended up where it was meant to at Richmond’s American Civil War Museum. It was simply too weighty an obligation for me to have taken on back in 1987. I was feeling cocky, though, having bought the Charleston Library Society Audubons just the year before, and thought I had money to burn.

This end of the art business adheres to no standard mark-ups, so I am fond of saying that I make my money when I buy. I know I can sell any painting in time and usually have an upfront idea of what it will bring. The difference is in what portion of that value I have to invest to add it to my inventory. A couple of years back, we featured a wonderful work, Garden in June, by the Mississippi-born artist Gaines Ruger Donoho on our website. An old friend and client in New Orleans, a connoisseur of Mississippi art and artists, called saying that he had thought about it for a very long time and had decided to make the purchase if we could agree on the money. In this instance, such an arrangement wasn’t difficult: good picture at a fair price and we were both happy.

The Donoho had elicited an inquiry months earlier from a woman in Florida who offered another example by the artist, one finer than any I had ever before encountered. We spoke and she said that it was only for sale for cash and that it had to be done that day. I got a sense of her bottom line and phoned a collector in a nearby city; he generously agreed to take her his check, negotiate the price, and retrieve the painting. I was frustrated when, all of ten minutes later, I called to confirm the particulars and was told that the picture was sold. There have been many times when I was a day late or the proverbial dollar short, but that measly ten minutes got to me. This woman had sent me a decent image of the painting via e-mail, and, as it was now obvious, sent the same to other parties. I was left to file the incident away and lament the loss.

Some months after the sale of the garden scene to our friend in New Orleans, the very same woman called to tell me she wanted to offer me, lo and behold, Hollyhocks, the Donoho that got away. The caveat: If I wanted it, I would have to bring her cash—not a check—and be there that very afternoon. I have no idea what happened the first go-round, but apparently she did not remember having spoken with me. As we conversed, my digital files yielded clear confirmation that this was indeed the same canvas. I am not one to pass up a second chance and immediately called a friend I thought might be in Florida. I reached her on her cell and asked where she was. Luck was mine: She was no more than an hour and a half from the hoped-for canvas, and as I worked Google maps, she did me the favor. With deepened gratitude for interstate banking, I deposited $2,500 in her account and asked that she find an ATM and withdraw the same. She bought the painting for a thousand and kept the change.

We have sold multiple paintings by William Aiken Walker to several collectors—they tend to want more than one—but have seldom done so with any other artist. When New Orleans called soon after to ask what new material I might have, I laughed and told him the story of the elusive Donoho, even what I had paid for it. When I quoted the market price—my anticipated profit soaring in six digits—he stunned me by taking the painting, sight unseen. As he reckoned it, the going rate was less than he had paid for his first Donoho, and this was clearly the better picture. He said yes and I said yes, and he subsequently sold his Garden in June to another patron of Mississippi painters.

This is an extreme example, to be sure, but I would happily have ridden such a meager investment for years. The Donoho is worth more now than when I sold it and will only continue to gain in value. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. My purchase was fortunate, but I would have paid much, much more. “Remember,” I tell the bankers, “you make your money when you buy.”

Gaines Ruger Donoho (1857-1916)
Hollyhocks ()
Oil on canvas
20 1⁄4 x 24 1⁄4 inches
Signature Details: Lower right
Owner: Private Collection, Mississippi
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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