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Art For Art’s Sake – but give us your Cash

In South Africa, the wealthy are willing to spend a lot of money on something to hang on the wall and show off to their friends.

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Lot 234, the Preller, Space Angel, signed and dated ’71, oil and gesso on canvas.

“I have three million one hundred thousand. Three two, thank you. Three four, three five, six, seven, eight, nine, four million. Four million two hundred thousand with you, four million four, four six, yes, I saw that nod, go ahead, five. Now five two, five four, five six, I’m at the back of the room now, she’s got it at five eight, it is with you madam, at five million eight hundred thousand rand, at five eight, all done? This is fair warning, I’m going to sell it …”

Bang, goes his gavel on the desk. “Your number please?” asks auctioneer Dendy Easton in his plummy British accent. We are at the Wanderers Club in Johannesburg on November 7, 2016.

It has taken one minute, 40 seconds for somebody to spend R5.8 million ($440,000) for Alexis Preller’s painting. There is scattered applause.

“Lot 235, the Edoardo Villa …”

Bidding continues for nearly 300 lots until the final one, Lot 293, a Keith Alexander painting, goes for R360,000 ($27,000).

There is a lot of money in art, and a lot of it in this particular room. Here in Johannesburg, among these bidders, the South African economy looks pretty robust. Apartheid  marginalized South African artists, which means that collectors from China to New Zealand, America to Britain, South America to Europe, are now greedy for South African art. Greediest of all, it seems, are South Africans themselves. While the country’s economy may be stressed, the wealthy have cash for pretty things to hang on their walls. A lot of it.

Of course there are good artists in Africa. Some of the best from the continent are South African.

“The fact that there is so much money for art now is to some extent because we were marginalized. And our artists are good. Very good,” says Emma Bedford, Senior Art Specialist and a Director of Aspire Art Auctions.

“We have a history of good art schools in this country. The rest of Africa doesn’t,” interrupts Ruarc Peffers, the tall, suave and experienced auctioneer of Aspire, a brand new South African auction house that on Halloween night in Johannesburg sold over $2.2-million’s worth of South African art, at an auction a week before the big Strauss one. Discovery boss Adrian Gore is a major Aspire investor, as is Brian Joffe of Bidvest.

It’s a funny business, art collection and auctions.

Frank Kilbourn, Executive Chairman of the biggest and oldest South African auction house, Strauss & Co, which sold the Preller mentioned above, tells me he is reluctant to tell people art is an investment. “But it is,” he adds. “If you bought South African art a decade or two or three ago, you have made a lot of money, or could make if you sell now.”

“The whole world is waking up to our art. It is reaching record prices. If you did invest, you made money. But that’s not what art is all about.”

It is about appreciation, culture, civilization, aesthetics, collecting, pride, knowledge, historicity, philosophy.

To show just how the market is booming, Kilbourn, who has separate degrees in law, commerce and philosophy, explains that three huge new galleries are being built in South Africa.

In Cape Town there is Zeitz MOCAA (Museum for Contemporary Art in Africa) at the Waterfront – old grain silos with a five-star hotel on top of an eight-story gallery; Javett is being built in Pretoria, in collaboration with the University of Pretoria, and the third is a private one being built at Steenberg in the Cape.

“This is a wonderful thing for the country, and for art,” Kilbourn, a collector himself, says with a happy smile. His team tell me I mustn’t fail to mention that their auction in Cape Town earlier this year realized $4.2 million, the second highest ever for an art auction. “And that’s in Cape Town!”

At the Strauss auction in Johannesburg exactly a week after Aspire’s auction, Kilbourn buys two paintings himself. One is an Erik Laubscher Still Life with Pumpkin Slice which was expected to reach R300,000 ($22,000) to R400,000 ($30,000).

At R400,000 the auctioneer pauses, Kilburn just nods, “420?” Easton looks around the room … “430!” he says triumphantly. There is another bidder, bidding against Kilburn. Now it is rapid fire from the auctioneer, finger pointing left then right, like watching tennis at Wimbledon: “440, 480; 500, 520; 550, 580; 600, 620; 650, 680; 700, 720; 750, 780; 800… 820. Fair warning… R820,000, I’m going to sell it, here in the second row.”

Bang goes Easton’s gavel. In half a minute, the price doubled.

While interviewing Kilbourn after the auction he greets somebody mischievously, giving him a big smile, asking “Were you the bastard pushing me up on the Laubscher? I thought you were my friend?”

Small auction rival Aspire has been in business since July this year. They are a chip off the older Strauss house, for which most of them worked. The four Aspire art specialists have qualifications in fine art, art history, art theory, criticism and curating.

Aspire Auctioneer Ruarc Peffers, a graduate of the famous Michaelis School of Art at the University of Cape Town, tells me he has done “Oh, over 100 auctions” in his career, but the Johannesburg one was his first for Aspire. He describes how it is “left foot, right foot” stuff: the auctioneer must ensure he has the momentum on his side, as he goes up in about ten percent increases.

In South African law the auction house is allowed to bid, so one of the auctioneer’s tasks is to get the bid to a real bidder, not the house. There are a bunch of bidders on phones from New York, Australia, even New Zealand – and they are not ex-South Africans, he says. Plus there are internet bids being controlled by Aspire staff member Rafael Powell. Hunched over his computer, every now and then he lifts his bidding number to bid for somebody on the net, who is bidding from somewhere on the planet to get South African art.

If the reserve price is in the millions, the auctioneer goes up in hundreds of thousands.

Estimates in the catalogue usually have the reserve price as the bottom estimate. If that’s not reached, the item is not sold. Although the auctioneer ‘closes’ at say R450,000, if the ‘estimate’ was R500,000 to R1 million, the item is probably going to remain with its owner.

After the auction a lot of buying and selling activity takes place, people making offers, bringing down reserve prices, offering to buy an already bought item. Frenetic stuff for staff for the 24 hours after the final hammer falls.

I went to both auctions, a week apart, one by Strauss and one by Aspire.

Emma Bedford says: “Modernist artists on our sale who performed best included JH Pierneef, Hugo Naudé, Alexis Preller, Edoardo Villa, Erik Laubscher and Douglas Portway. But what really excited us was how well the contemporary artists did, many breaking records. Like photographers David Goldblatt and Pieter Hugo, as well as artists Peter Schütz, William Kentridge, Diane Victor and Athi-Patra Ruga.”

The top Preller on Aspire’s sale Profiled figures (Mirrored Images) reached $468,000 on the auction.

I ask the Aspire auctioneer: “Why don’t you say something about the painting during the auction? You only say ‘Lot 14, the Irma Stern. I have a bid of 500 (thousand)’ but nothing about the work?”

He says: “Bidders know the works, there were three days of viewing, they have the catalogue. And you only have about three minutes for each lot, otherwise ‘bidders’ fatigue’ sets in, and you don’t want that. We did 121 lots in two hours.”

At the Strauss auction, I realize how right he is. I find myself nodding off when we get to lots 260, 270, 280.

Lot 249, a Preller Woman with Red Hair goes for R2 million ($150,000) although it was expected to only reach R200,000 ($15000), and Lot 248, another Preller, Revelation which was expected to get R400,000 ($30,000) goes for R2.4 million ($180,000) to a telephone bidder. A tiny Preller painting, Ritual Bull, only 7.5cmx9cm, goes for R550,000 ($41,000).

Strangely enough, the real star of the Strauss auction, the so-called lost Preller Adam – a heavy piece of art the size of a big coffin, absolutely exquisite in my untutored opinion, goes for a bid of only R6 million ($450,000), a huge bargain. (Commission of about  $59,000 will be added to the price the bidder will actually pay.)

“This was the wrong audience for that work. It is a museum piece, not really for a public auction,” Kilburn shrugs and says. It was expected to reach $490,000 to $680,000.

This is a world of wealthy people, who acquire art to enjoy it on their walls, invest in it, and show it off. Their disposable income is serious money. Strange then, after watching these folk jump up bidding in hundreds of thousands of rands without blinking an eye, to hear them in the Wanderers’ parking lot debating whether to give the car guard a R5 coin or a R10 note.

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