The South African art market – tata my millions? Some notes 

by Andries Loots 19 May 2006

Results of three recent sales of South African art at Stephan Welz & Co in association with Sotheby’s in Johannesburg and at Bernardi Auctioneers in Pretoria clearly indicate that prices are rising, especially for modern and contemporary art. 

Very rarely before has the secondary art market seen a modern South African work reach a million Rand at auction like Irma Stern’s Dahlias did 1999. Several dealers claim to have sold works at higher prices, but this is hard to verify as private sales are usually kept confidential. So it was an astounded and delighted group of collectors and dealers who witnessed JH Pierneef’s Dar es Salaam change hands for a million at Bernardi’s sale in Pretoria in March this year. 

It seemed as if new life had suddenly been blown into a stagnant market, setting the stage for Stephan Welz’s record auction sale on 27 March in Johannesburg. Springtime, Namaqualand by Hugo Naude reached a hammer price of 1.3 million. Irma Stern’s Still life with arum lilies reached R950 000, propelling it over a million with commission added. 

But the biggest surprises were still in store. Prices paid for contemporary works, particularly by William Kentridge and Marlene Dumas, left knowledgeable people gasping for breath. Faceless, a serigraph from an edition of 200 by Dumas sold for R 45 000; Studio Portrait, a serigraph from an edition of 120 by Kentridge sold for R 75 000. Numbered editions of both these works are still obtainable at considerably lower prices. 

The last five to eight years have seen South African artworks increase steadily in price, keeping the market buoyant and collectors smiling. But if one puts South African art in context with the rest of the world, a rather more sobering picture emerges. 

There seems to be scant international demand for older South African pictures, as demonstrated by the Travel and Exploration Sales of Christies of London in the late 90s. Many of these works failed to meet reserves or were snapped up by one or two South African dealers and shipped back home. This even happened to a Gerard Sekoto self-portrait sold recently at Bonhams in London.

Except for works by William Kentridge, Marlene Dumas who, though South African born is in fact regarded as a Dutch artist, Zwelethu Mthethwa, whose work has appeared twice, Kendell Geers and Candice Breitz, virtually no work by contemporary South African artists has appeared on prominent international auctions. There may be various reasons for this obvious lack, but one wonders whether galleries and dealers representing artists should not, at least partially, be held accountable. 

Once a gallery embraces an artist into their “stable”, they seem to “own” the life and career of the artist, attempting to make as much money from his or her work, limiting his or her exposure to the outside world, fearing that better opportunities might lure them away. Exposure to the outside world and exhibitions, even group exhibitions, in reputable galleries are allowed only rarely. 
To be “owned” by a gallery can pose grave dangers to the career of an artist, despite the sense of security it might imparts. Artists should remember that often dealers are loyal to sales only, not to individuals. 

International auction houses like Sotheby’s, Christies, Phillips and Bonhams mostly accept only works by known artists who have been exposed regularly to the international collecting circuit by way of exhibitions, thus acquiring what is referred to as a “reputation.” Without a reputation, no artist can hope to achieve high prices at auction. International curators play an important role as inclusion in a museum collection is a vital stage in the promotional process. Exposure to as many collectors, shows and exhibitions in the shortest time possible is the way to go for an artist. 

In South Africa, the erroneous impression that putting a work on auction is somehow destructive or negative, is still widespread among gallerists, artists and private dealers. Perhaps they see it as a kind of a sell-out, but on the contrary, having a work included for an auction sale at a reputable auction can significantly enhance the reputation of an artist. A strong, vibrant, independent secondary market exposes work to an open playing field for buyers who may, for whatever reasons, not have the opportunity to buy from galleries. 

A recent European law makes it mandatory that a percentage be paid to living artists in the event of secondary sales of their work over a certain price, much like royalties are paid to authors. Perhaps regulations like this one, aimed at protecting the interest of artists, could make auctions more attractive to artists in South Africa?
Hugo Naudé Namaqualand Stephan Wels & Co. Johannesburg March 2006 R1 300 000
The Haenggi Foundation responds
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