The 10 best?... of the art-auction scene

2013-11-10 14:00

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The last of businessman Brett Kebble’s art bounty recently went on auction at Bonhams in London for R2.8m in a bid to repay the slain mogul’s debts. Percy Mabandu looks at the art-auction phenomenon locally and abroad.

1Most expensive work of art ever auctioned 

The late Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, whose creative career ended in January 1944 when he died, is perhaps most famous for his 1895 pastel, The Scream.

Last year, at a Sotheby’s auction in New York, the work set a record for the most amount of money spent on a work of art to date.

This followed what commentators called 12 nail-biting minutes with five eager bidders.

Edvard Munch’s The Scream

It sold for $120?million (R1.2?billion at the current exchange rate). It takes over from Pablo Picasso’s Boy With A Pipe, which sold for $93?million.

2Kentridge leads SA

William Kentridge is recognised as the bestselling living South African artist.

This is based on the performance of his collection of 10 works that were sold out at Sotheby’s in March.

William Kentridge

One work, a procession of 25 small bronze ­sculptures, set an auction record of $1.5?million for the artist best known for his animated film works.

3Art auction as fundraiser

Beyond the spectacle of unimaginable financial figures, art auctions have often been convened for philanthropic reasons too.

This year, for instance, the South African art community came together to help fellow artist Diane Victor with her medical expenses. Victor, who is suffering from

polycystic kidney disease, needed to undergo a R2?million operation in the US to receive a donated kidney.

South African artist Diane Victor

Big names who donated works for auction included Kentridge. His Concerning Narrative, a self-portrait, is worth about R350?000.

Kudzanai Chiurai, Sam Nhlengethwa, Gerhard Marx, Moshekwa Langa and Mikhael Subotzky donated works too.

4China in art-buying mode

Art-world financial reports reveal that auction houses in Hong Kong have sold up to $700?million worth of art and have set a series of world records in recent weeks.

China’s seriousness about buying art is signalled by the art appetite of its rising number of millionaires. Some with state backing have interests in the nation’s large auction houses.

A portrait of Mao Zedong

Poly Auction, the third largest in the world, belongs to a state-owned conglomerate controlled by the army and headed by the son-in-law of China’s former leader, Deng Xiaoping.

Chen Dongsheng, co-founder of Guardian Auctions, the fifth-largest auction firm, is married to the granddaughter of the late Mao Zedong, Communist China’s founding father.

In the last decade, China went from having no auction houses of prominence to having six of the world’s top 10.

5Best-performing SA artist

Irma Stern is famed as the exceptional South African artist who achieved national and international recognition in her lifetime.

She remains one of the most consistently bestselling South African artists at auction.

Last year in June, Stern’s work titled Arab Priest and framed by an elaborately carved Zanzibari wooden frame, went under the hammer for a whooping R17.2?million at Strauss & Co Fine Art Auctioneers.

Irma Stern’s Arab Priest work leads SA sales

This marked the second-highest price achieved for a Stern painting sold at auction in South Africa. This was double the presale estimate of R7?million to R9?million.

Her painting titled The Malay Bride was auctioned for £1.2?million (R20?million) in London last month. In March 2011, one of her paintings sold for R34?million in London.

6Best selling black SA artist

Gerard Sekoto is the pre-eminent modernist painter who left South Africa in 1947 for Paris, France, where he stayed until his death in 1993.

He remains the officially recognised best-performing black South African artist in auction sales.

May 9 2006 saw another of his paintings, a self-portrait and probably Sekoto’s most famous work, selling for a record £117?600 (R1.9?billion at the current exchange rate) at Bonhams auctioneers in London.

Self-portrait by Gerard Sekoto

This is seven times the initial estimate of up to £18?000 and smashed the previous world-auction record price for a Sekoto painting of £31?000.

7ANC art auction

The ANC sent waves that left the art market wobbling in January.

The political hacks at Luthuli House held a fundraising event to raise some money for the organisation and that involved an artauction that raised a total of R21.4?million.

The issue that annoyed the art world was the evening’s highest fee, paid by Mineral Resources Minister

Susan Shabangu for a portrait of Nelson Mandela by an ­unknown South African artist from Durban, Sifiso ­Ngcobo.

The minister threw in a R3.7?million winning bid.

A portrait of Nelson Mandela by Sifiso Ngcobo

Other critics cried foul that the ripple effect of the party’s auction might create false value for young artists who are not well established and harm the art industry.

The sale placed young ­Ngcobo in the Kentridge price tag league overnight.

8Art and money laundering

Art auctions have been dogged by rumours of ­criminality.

This is because in any one transaction, both the seller and buyer’s identities can be hidden under the “private collection” tag.

This has often made for a convenient loophole for smugglers looking to hide illicit profits.

This is highlighted by incidents like the case of Brazilian banker and convicted embezzler Edemar Ferreira, who tried to sell a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting worth $8?million in the US to wash his ill-gotten money.

Banker and convicted embezzler Edemar Ferreira

Ferreira and others had ­attempted to buy art to sell at overseas auctions with false names and valuations on the crates.

9The Kebble affair

In 2009, an artauction was held to dispose of Brett Kebble’s collection, a man once celebrated as the grandest patron of South African art.

He was the principal of the Brett KebbleArt Award, the nation’s richest yearly art award.

The auction, held at Summer Place in Hyde Park, was touted as the finest artauction on South African soil, with 800 registered bidders and several international buyers bidding by phone for the 133 works on sale.

The late mining magnate Brett Kebble

The auctioned netted more than R50?million in sales, with some work remaining unsold.

Some paintings that didn’t sell then recently went under the hammer at Bonhams London.

They included an Irma Stern and a Pieter Willem Frederick Wenning at the starting prices of R1.6?million and R1.2?million, respectively.

10The great auction scandal

In 2000, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, two of the world’s most prestigious and profitable auction houses, admitted to a criminal price-fixing conspiracy.

They violated the antitrust law, and each agreed to pay clients $256?million in compensation for illegally coordinating the commissions they charged on sales between 1993 and 2000.

Remember the Christie’s-Sotheby’s scandal?

Prior to 1995, they were in fierce competition for consignments from sellers.

In March 1995, this competition appeared to have abruptly ended. It would be revealed later that this was as a result of collusion.

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