Buying art gets freeky

2015-02-22 15:00

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The latest acquisitions by the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) have shattered the myth of “investment art” as dusty gilded pieces by old masters.

JAG, which celebrates its centenary this year, has bought South African photographer Roger Ballen’s I Fink You Freeky series, which introduced often bewildered art patrons to Die Antwoord.

They may not be “pretty”, but the Ballen series suggests that those looking to break into the market of buying art can find gold in the strangest places – and watch its shine deepen.

Gallerist Heidi Erdmann of Erdmann Contemporary in Cape Town first debuted Ballen’s controversial series in 2012.

Erdmann told City Press that back then an individual piece from the edition of prints could be bought for R5?250. A few months later, when 10 from the edition of 50 prints were sold, a single print cost R7?500.

A year later, after a stint in a prestigious Los Angeles gallery, the price per print escalated to $2?500 (just under R30?000 at the current exchange rate). By last year, they had tripled in value.

It’s impossible to track the sale of art on a linear scale because value frequently climbs on the unregulated secondary market – auctions, investment galleries, art dealers or consultants.

But a canny observer can at least get a sense of the time it can take for an emerging artist to become a collectible one.

Multiples – individual art pieces reproduced in a limited, tracked number – are a popular and affordable way to get into buying art. This is largely a cheaper way than buying one-off, original items such as oil paintings.

The idea and prevalence of multiples is often attributed to pop artists such as Andy Warhol, but Erdmann says it also has deep roots in South Africa.

“The idea [of multiplying Ballen’s prints] was very much inspired by Tretchikoff, who released prints of his paintings,” she says. “Multiples are more reasonable and one can sell them in perpetuity as Tretchi did.”

JAG has also recently acquired photographic series by Sabelo Mlangeni and Zanele Muholi, a collage by Marcus Neustetter, drawings by Maja Marx, Richard Penn and Wilhelm Saayman, and portfolio work by Vincent Baloyi, Muzi Donga, Osiah Masekoameng, Velaphi Mzimba, Mmakgabo (Helen) Sebidi and Nhlanhla Xaba.

“The Johannesburg Art Gallery is one of the few public institutions with a budget for purchasing art,” says Antoinette Murdoch, JAG’s head and its chief curator.

“We have a vast collection of roughly 9?000 pieces. This is separated into traditional African, contemporary and historical work. The gallery has been active in collecting important work for many years and, more recently, focusing on southern African pieces,” says Murdoch.

“The aim of collecting is to leave a legacy for future generations that is representative of our country’s very interesting history.”

JAG has also displayed remarkable foresight by buying Dineo Bopape’s video work. Collectors and gallerists worldwide are becoming more interested in video work.

It may seem extraordinary to buy what is, in effect, a DVD – although each one comes with a certificate authenticating its origin. Murdoch says the material an item is made of accounts for very little of an art piece’s intrinsic value.

“I think we buy ideas. We buy their voices; we buy their passion; we buy their world-views. Because, ultimately, that’s what art is to me.

“What we ultimately buy is their point of view.”

In 2012, American artist Doug Aitken’s 12-year-old video installation, I Am in You, sold at auction house Phillips de Pury in New York for $176?500.

Murdoch sees video as a new kind of painting.

“I think video is exactly that in a contemporary world. The communication we’re used to is primarily digital. Art has had to compete in that realm for the last while and is now offering communication in the same medium.

“If you paint with a paintbrush, it’s one moment that you capture. If you paint with a video camera, you capture many more moments of aesthetic beauty than just one still moment,” adds Murdoch.

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