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Nearly 60 years ago I was employed by Frost & Reed, a Bond Street art dealing house that then had a substantial business in the US; primarily with the trade. This had continued even throughout the war, braving submarines and helping to produce dollars.

As a tough member of the TA in those days (I had to take my holiday period for annual camp) I was selected to join the American Department, a labourer rather than for my knowledge of art.

As this was a sixth-month tour, one needed to be single and physically able; and have a sense of humour. Not for wimps. We were moving from city to city every few days with some six tons of art. We drove – the pics went by truck!

Three of us flew out and joined ‘our’ junk in Boston in the Copley Plaza. We had a suite of rooms and the stuff was un-crated and spread about the bedrooms; the wood and leather cases containing both paintings and works on paper being stored by the hotel in their basement.

It was physically exhausting un-packing and packing every few days. However, we did dine off steak and lobster (sometimes both) when entertaining so it was not all bad, but one slept like the dead, occasionally being wakened by creaking canvases and cracking panels.

Having eventually reached the West Coast and done all our possible business we needed to get to Boston to dump the car and get to New York City, where the unsold and unpaid-for items wait patiently at Pier 9 for the QE 2 to be taken home, as luggage. The six or so tons travelled in the hold as Andrew’s and my luggage, free of additional cost. A group of young ladies in First Class, whose daddies had ‘orl wells’, escaped their chaperones to join us in steerage class which they found more entertaining (I will leave it at that).

Big Apple bites

A year or two later about seven or eight of us would visit New York for the art sales; Sotheby’s had just acquired Parke-Bernet and Christie’s had opened up also.

At that time, in our opinion, both houses there tended to undervalue European items. We had a field day, each buying several lots apiece on each visit, which perhaps costing several hundred dollars could if cheaply landed back home be sold via various traders for the same sum in pounds a few days later, or quickly auctioned… the dollar then stood at about 2.20 to the pound.

And we still had four weeks to pay for the things.

The problem was that a 4ft 2in x 3ft 4in framed portrait costing about $1000 could be sold for £1000, but if shipped/air-freighted in a wooded crate etc the packing and shipping costs would negate any profit at all.

We had to carry the things ourselves as luggage.

I recall one visit when we each had about seven or eight items, some quite large. So some 40 or 50 packages between us. An extra payment in the packing department of the auction house ensured they were ‘safely’ wrapped in cardboard; perhaps not to Dr Cannon-Brookes’ high standards and requirements.

I was authorised/volunteered to act as transport officer. Via a helpful hotel porter, two yellow cabs were loaded with eight of us and our luggage, as was a plain white van driven by someone else’s brother/ cousin, or unknown friend. A seamless journey to JFK airport. But on arrival no truck – no art! Perhaps it was all being sold off cheaply in Brooklyn…. oh dear. What was the name of the driver? A sweaty wait then at last he finally appeared and we were united with our week’s work, probably all uninsured.

Aided by airline porters we assailed the check-in desk. The picture packages, some 40 or 50 in number, ranged across the hall. A horrified airline employee said: “No, no, no.” One of our number (now a major dealer) demanded to see a senior BA person who on appearing quickly got the idea.

Having all promised in future to travel always/only by BA and always at least in Club Class by some, our baggage disappeared, and we were given passes to the First Class Lounge and free drinks. Easy trip, fill in the VAT customs forms on arrival at Heathrow, which by now we knew how to do (saving several hundred pounds more in fees) and off downtown to sell the wretched things so we could pay our bill and go again.

Simon Waters

Pebworth, Worcestershire