Shifts in the local art market

 Alastair Meredith, art specialist at Strauss & Co. (Picture: Supplied)
Alastair Meredith, art specialist at Strauss & Co. (Picture: Supplied)

The past year won’t be remembered for being a pinnacle in prices at art auctions. 

Nothing matched the excitement on an international scale as the sale of two Amedeo Modiglianis a couple of years ago, which fetched $179m and $170m respectively. 

Inevitably no sale got close to the Salvator Mundi of Leonardo da Vinci, which sold for a record $450m in 2017. 

Claude Monet’s Meules (1890) was sold for just over $110m at a Sotheby’s auction in New York in May – delivering the highest price during the first half of the year.

Anything that was sold for more than $50m this year was viewed by international auctioneers as a good price. 

Sales at Christie’s November auction of impressionistic and modern art in New York was 52% less than its May auction. 

Sotheby’s saw a 40% drop between their two auctions held in May and November.

Economic limitations, political instability and especially talks about impeachment of the US president, together with the Brexit issue on the other side of the Atlantic, dampened sales. 

Buyers, as a result of these factors, kept cash in their pockets rather than spending it on very expensive art.

Even though art buyers on the international market are tightening their belts, and this trend is discernible in South Africa’s secondary art market (art auctions), it doesn’t mean buyers aren’t investing in the so-called middle market. 

In any event, shifts are perceived in SA’s secondary market and for art in the middle-price segment.

This segment, which until recently mainly included traditional landscapes and ocean scenes, started to present “softness” while black modern and contemporary artists gained more prominence, says James Sey, marketing and research head at Aspire Art Auctions.

“Aspire has put in a lot to develop the value of black South African artists such as Gerard Sekoto, George Pemba, Dumile Feni and Julian Motau and we’re starting to see a shift in interest from collectors in this segment,” says Sey. 

“This interest points to a change in the buyers profile and we hope to build out the corps of new buyers.”

The fact that the demand for some artists’ work declined over the last couple of months, is confirmed by Alastair Meredith, art specialist at Strauss & Co. 

But, he adds, the local art market is healthy. 

“On Strauss & Co’s March auction in Cape Town, we had four works selling for more than R10m each and one of them, Irma Stern’s Arab (1945), sold for just over R20m,” he says.

In addition, a new record was set for a bronze sculpture by Anton van Wouw when his maquette of Paul Kruger sold for just under R10.5m in May. 

This was a confirmation of the fact that quality works with a solid heritage will always attract buyers.

Marlene Dumas’s Love Lost (1973/1974) was Aspire's crown jewel this year when the bid landed at R7.3m – much more than the estimated R5m.

Incidentally, Dumas and William Kentridge are listed among the world’s 100 top artists measured by turnover, according to The Contemporary Art Market Report 2019.

Meredith and Sey each chose three South African artists, from a plethora of possibilities, to keep on one’s radar next year. 

Meredith’s list includes Simphiwe Ndzube, who was born in Hofmeyr in the Eastern Cape and who is residing in Los Angeles today, precisely due to his carnivalesque portraits and theatrical landscapes; Igshaan Adams, last year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Art for his ingenious wall tapestries; and Kevin Roberts, painter and sculptor who died in 2009 at the age of 44.

Sey’s choices fell on Bambo Sibiya, the 2012 winner of the Gerard Sekoto prize; Billie Zangewa, an artist who made her mark with two-dimensional works in silk; and Blessing Ngobeni, this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Art. 

I’ll spend money on the following works

Alastair Meredith, art specialist at Strauss & Co

Local: Ten years ago, Daniel Naudé compiled a photo series of Africanis dogs. One of these works will without a doubt be one of my choices.

International: I’m mad about inter-war British modernism and would therefore not mind owning a small Edward Wadsworth wood engraving.

James Sey, marketing and research head at Aspire Art Auctions

Local: Blessing Ngobeni – his work is still affordable, and his style and thematic choices are so in touch with what’s happening worldwide.

International: The Nigerian modern artist Ben Enwonwu, whose work is surfacing worldwide at art auctions. 

It’s wonderful that he receives this recognition. 

This article originally appeared in the 12 December edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.

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