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First-hand from Bonhams

My immediate response after being at the 26 Oct London art auctions.

R42 million, a good sale when compared with SA auction house results.

I sensed a nervousness at Bonhams about what this means in the market, and I don’t think the nervousness should be felt only in their organisation. Certainly the exchange rate affects all buyers ultimately spending Rands (the exchange rate was 12,8 on the day). Add this to the fact that Bonhams premium to buyers has been raised from 20% to 25% on the first GBP25,000 (20% after that), which the SA Dept apparently contested without success. (Strauss and S Welz and co remain at 10% for lots over R10,000). Buyers at Bonhams who reside in SA are nervous of shipping and import costs into SA, which is probably where the majority of the works in past auctions have landed. The world seems to be, but now it is evident that our SA diaspora is, holding onto their money, and is more jittery. One Bonhams executive commented lightly that we are perhaps in an economic climate like 1929! Is the slight recovery in financial markets shifting where investors are putting their money? Those of you with bigger business-world perspectives would be more able to comment.

I suspect that our SA market is just too small to sustain buying on 14 large, catalogued auctions per year, especially in this international climate. These 14 auctions represent only a portion of the total art annual sales and purchases – galleries and private treaty transactions represent a sizeable percentage of the market, if unquantifiable because these are not public.

A high point for Bonhams was the William Kentridge Orange head (proof of edition of 15) fetching a hammer price of GBP85,000 (R1,073,000) – it was estimated at GBP25-35,000. This is way above the R700,000 hammer price achieved at Strauss’s recent Cape Town sale for a Kentridge Blue head (from edition of 35). However, the Stern double Arab portrait on the same Strauss sale fetched a hammer price of R19 million, which implies that the Watussi woman was a ‘bargain’. It’s not only the prices paid for certain works (or not paid) which is interesting. What is alarming is that the important Sekoto offered on this Bonhams auction did not sell – it was in Johannesburg (having been refused export by the Heritage Agency, which meant it would not have attracted import VAT nor import costs), neither did the Stern Still life with black lilies, also refused export and so sold in London from Johannesburg. Neither did the sizeable, strongly-coloured abstracted Sumner Still life sell, nor one of the most beautiful Pierneef oils I have seen for a long time (both key pictures, on the sale in London). This means it surely is not so much about the works, but about the climate.

So perhaps even if Irma and Kentridge are the internationally-sought-after SA stars they have been showing that they are in relation to prices fetched, the market is going to beat some sense into these figures and make us feel that money is worth more than it has been. That would be a good thing. We all in the art world can surely be more creative about how we do business to add value, not simply promote consumerism, and maybe this climate will create opportunities for more living artists and encourage connoisseur collecting again. The fashion for minimalist living spaces (interesting Modernism exhibition on at the V&A shows the roots of some of these trends) has perhaps not helped the environment for collecting either!

Even if our generation lives to see the inclusion of Irma in the fold of international Modernists valued for collection by people who don’t necessarily have South African connections, perhaps she has flown too fast too soon price-wise? I passed a gallery in Knightsbridge displaying three Giorgio Morandi paintings, which now fetch in the region of USD2,5 million – in a similar range, but with a far more secure track record to date than our Irma.

After this auction, I am also wondering just how strong the contemporary market really is, and whose work this strong market actually includes. Both William and Irma are remarkable artists, but the market has shown that the ‘package’ needs to be right for prices to go and stay high. And while William is making work, there is early and current ‘stock’ to be found, which, in my view, fuels the market to some extent. What about the many artists who are making excellent work and exhibit in galleries – most of these artists are not represented in the catalogued auctions (and so glossy reproductions)? What about the many artists making excellent work who are not even represented by galleries? Hopefully the contemporary market is strong – I know there are younger buyers who want to support their own generation, and who are not buying primarily ‘historical, representational’ work off auctions, and this climate presents opportunities for these artists (and buyers).

What a good time to collect – if you have the funds, the confidence and belief in the value of creativity.


Posted: 2011/11/08 (02:51:51 PM)

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