Archive: Issue No. 126, February 2008

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Maggie Laubser

Maggie Laubser
The Fisherman

Fred Page

Fred Page
The Bus


Irma Stern
Anemones 1938
oil on canvas


Jo Ractliffe
End of time 1999
gelatin silver print


Zwelethu Mthethwa
Untitled 2007
chromogenic print

A Trend for Investment - Joburg Art Fair in the Light of Recent Sales
by Rat Western

'While artworks have, on average, appreciated more than ten times since the 1980s, collecting art as an investment is not for the cheap, the naïve or the plain greedy', says Graham Britz of Graham's Fine Art, a gallery which specializes in the valuation, restoration and sale of 19th and 20th century South African art.

It is also not for the impatient.

In recent years, galleries, auction houses and private individuals have been making record sales but, while the market can be said to be booming, the works are in majority early 20th century painting - Irma Stern, Gerard Sekoto, J.H. Pierneef and the likes.

In May 2006, London-based auction house Bonham's sold a self-portrait by Gerard Sekoto for £123,450 (about R1.8 million) breaking the record for this artist. The following year they held an auction dedicated exclusively to South African art, the first outside this country. Again work sold for far more than pre-sale estimates.

Most notable were the sales of Irma Stern's The Tomato Pickers (1961) whose pre-sale estimate of £80 000 - £120 000 (R1.16 - R1.75 million) was topped by its fetching price of £155 000 (R2.26 million), and J.H. Pierneef's Camelthorn Tree, Kalahari, (1956) which collected ?68 000 (R991 000). Yet at the same auction Fred Page's Mummy with Toy Gallows (1964) went for a mere ?2 200 (R32 000) demonstrating that age alone is no marker for financial appreciation.

Locally, a Sotheby's auction in May last year saw the sale of Maggie Laubser's Woman with an Orange Kopdoek go for R1.89million, double its pre-sale estimate.

So who is buying these artworks?

Some concern has been expressed that these London-based sales are contributing to the removal of heritage objects from South Africa, but Bonham's states that, '[I]n our last auction (May 2007) the majority of paintings sold were consigned by clients outside South Africa and subsequently imported to South Africa. So repatriating a large body of artwork that had previously not been available for South African collectors and institutions.'

The 11th annual World Wealth Report published in June 2007, identifies South Africa as one of four countries to see the sharpest rise in high net-worth individuals. This economic growth has led to an increased interest in luxury items and collectables, not only as an investment, but also as a status symbol. Many South Africans living in London have also experienced this increase in high net-worth and so the South African-focused Bonham's auctions (May 2007 and January 2008) have been perfectly placed for high net-worth South African who may be feeling homesick.

The majority of these record sales are of work already 50 years or older. So what does this mean for the more contemporary art market, and when is this boom likely to level out?, a website which specialises in art market information states that, 'The poor health of the global economy is unlikely to spare an art market which is not immune to significant stock market turbulence for very long'. However, despite uncertain global stock markets, and a troubled US economy, Sotherby's recorded its best-ever sale (14 Nov 2007) $316 million (R2, 300 million) on its 'Contemporary Art Evening' sale beating $286 million in May 1990 on 'Impressionist and Modern Art'.

At home, contemporary work does not generally sell for the high prices fetched by international contemporary artists - William Kentridge and Marlane Dumas being the exceptions - so the 2007 sale of Joachim Schönfeldt's Roar for R1.5 million brings some hope. Though it raised little comment, the sale was a milestone for contemporary South African art which rarely exceeds R100 000.

The upcoming Joburg Art Fair which will feature work priced from between R1 000 to R 5 million, will be an interesting study of local and international commercial interests and what consumers are prepared to pay for what. Says Michael Jordaan, CEO of First National Bank, sponsor for the Johannesburg Art Fair, 'Art is becoming an attractive investment, and we are confident that the price range available will allow a variety of individuals to gain access to this important asset.'

The single stage of the Art Fair, on which a multitude of artists' work will be exhibited, provides an easy entry point where by buyers can compare work and prices in a single space - something that has not previously been possible.

Artists whose work will be on sale include David Goldblatt, Pieter Hugo, William Kentridge, Moshekwa Langa, Lawrence Lemaoana, Theresa Anne-Mackintosh, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Jo Ractliffe and Guy Tillim. South African galleries taking part include Art Extra, Art on Paper, Goodman Gallery, Gallery Momo, KZNSA Gallery, Michael Stevenson, SMAC Art Gallery and whatiftheworld. International galleries on show include Jack Shainman Gallery from New York and October Gallery from London.

Despite all the recent record-breaking sales for South African art, the future big earners that are not already highly priced remain illusive. This is the nature of investment - the future is speculative. One needs a good eye, a big wallet and enough patience, but a certain amount of clairvoyance would clinch the best future deal.