Is the secondary art market in South Africa naturally resillient, or were auctioneers simply conveniently prepared for the Covid-19 pandemic, which paralysed large sections of the economy this year?
At the end of 2019, websites and e-catalogues were simply useful additions to art auctions where the real thing could be scrutinised, evaluated, admired, desired and eventually auctioned off.
Direct contact was non-negotiable and when the hammer came down on a bid for a significant or expensive work, it was greeted by applause from the audience.
When the hammer and the applause were drowned out by the pandemic, the “additional accessories” came to the fore and the digital domain became the lifeblood of the secondary art market within a matter of a few months.
Three well-known auction houses, Strauss & Co and Aspire Art Auctions, with head offices in Johannesburg, and the London-based Bonhams, all established digital domains years ago and systematically invested more into this, and when the lockdown became a reality, they could seamlessly continue to bring art and the client together.
Giles Peppiatt, Bonhams’ director of modern and contemporary art from Africa, admits that he was quite sceptical about this medium at the time in 2019, which “sucks out the drama and personal participation in direct auctions”.
“I was one of the people who believed that it was useful to get photos and information on the works quickly and easily to clients; in order to impart background quickly. But I was convinced that no client would ever bid £500 000 online without having physically seen the work. How wrong I was,” he says thankfully.
But now the genie is out of the bottle, says Peppiatt, and there’s no turning back.
In addition to the fact that they could continue doing business, it is also a fact that Covid-19, with all the hardships and dismay that went hand in hand with the pandemic, did give the secondary market a boost.
“With [all our focus on] an online approach, we extended our client base here and overseas,” says Susie Goodman, executive director of Strauss & Co.
“We witnessed more and more people entering the secondary market, and art collectors made the transition to digital without any hesitation. In addition, they utilised the slower pace of the state of lockdown to do thorough research into the works of art to be auctioned.
”That it is also a younger generation that is investigating and buying art is something that Peppiatt, as well as Ruarc Peffers, Aspire Art Auctions’ managing director, point out.
“Maybe one can argue that the generation, who is so deft with the technology of 2020 is also the generation interested in contemporary art, which is an indication of the times we live in,” says Peffers.
The type of art that attracted quite a lot of interest is works by artists, such as Sydney Kumalo, John Koenakeefe Mohl, Bonnie Ntshalintshali, Ezrom Legae and Noria Mabasa, with private collectors and institutions competing because works by these artists seldom land up at auctions. In addition, interest has eventually been shown in the works of Diederick During and Wopko Jensma, two artists who have been overlooked for many years.
It was nevertheless the grande dame of the SA art world, Irma Stern, who once again reigned supreme at the auctions of Bonhams and Strauss & Co, fetching the highest prices. Bonhams sold Stern’s Watussi Chief’s Wife, 1946, oil on canvas in the original Zanzibar frame (63.2 x 50.5cm)in March for about R9m; while Strauss & Co sold her Still Life with Lilies, 1947, oil on canvas (83 x 76.5cm) for R14.8m.It’s been several years that Stern has been ruling the roost and it doesn’t look as if she’s going to abdicate any time soon.
The most expensive work to be auctioned off by Aspire this year, is Edoardo Villa’s Traverse, 1957, shaped steel plates, painted and mounted on a base with castors (98 x 42 x 562.5cm). Even though this Villa’s estimated selling price was between R2m and R3m, it fetched just under R4.8m.
Over the future, Peppiatt is adamant that “we can no longer return to the format we used before – and auctions with 60 to 100 people in a room could be something of the past, except for charity auctions et al”.
For the immediate future it would seem that the trend of digital, streamed and online auctions is here to stay. This is also true of Zoom meetings, videos of three-dimensional tours in galleries and comprehensive catalogue essays that put specific works in context.
This is all good and well, says Peffers, “but I am still looking for that magical replacement for that feeling of personally standing in front of a piece of art work, looking at it. I am still looking for that technical skill or tool that can bring about that feeling of physically standing in the presence of a work such as Jane Alexander’s Butcher Boys.”