Picture: Supplied
Picture: Supplied

It’s the end of October in Johannesburg and the hammer falls for Profile Figures, a large painting by South African artist Alexis Preller when bidding reaches R6.2m. We’re at the inaugural sale of Aspire, a new entrant in the auction market.

A week later, another work by Preller, a tall oil on fibreglass titled Adam, achieves R6m on the hammer at Strauss & Co’s November sale. Buyer’s premiums will be added on top, bringing the final purchase prices closer to the R7m mark.


Such art prices often bring people to ask us what determines these values. Why is it that a work by a certain artist can sometimes be valued 10 times higher than another work by the same artist? What makes this artist’s market so much higher than that of another?

A combination of factors— some intangible and some less so — determines the final currency value and explains the huge variance in prices.

These factors include the work’s aesthetic quality, the medium, rarity, provenance (or history of ownership), the artist’s standing and how the artist’s body of work is perceived to contribute to society from a philosophical or ideological standpoint.

It’s not only the name of an artist that commands high prices; the unique attributes of the artwork itself are significant.

According to The European Fine Art Foundation, which releases art market figures annually, worldwide art sales achieved $63.8bn in 2015, down 7% from 2014.

Artprice, the online art market database, attributes this slowdown mainly to the difficulties in western markets of finding high-quality works. SA’s contribution to the global art market is estimated at 0.1%.

The Citadel Art Price Index, which tracks the South African market, recorded that auction sales — the secondary market — came to R275.8m in 2015.

It’s estimated that the secondary market accounts for 30%-40% of total sale values. We could be looking then at a local market worth R600m—R700m.

Gallery sales, which constitute the primary market when an artwork is sold for the first time, and private sales are not published – which is why we can only guess the actual size of what commentators often refer to as a largely unregulated and opaque art market.

This year has continued to be robust for modern and contemporary African art, internationally and locally.

In November a selection of contemporary South African artworks from David Bowie’s estate went on auction at Sotheby’s in London, fetching collectively in the region
of R4.2m.

These results set new world record prices for the works of Norman Catherine, David Koloane and Willie Bester. Bowie’s entire art collection raised a staggering £32.9m, far above the £14.3m that had been predicted.

This perfectly illustrates the intangible value of art where the status of a previous owner, for instance, can have a dramatic impact on price.

Local auction sales take place biannually in autumn
and spring.

Top auction houses for modern and contemporary African art include Strauss & Co, Stephan Welz and Aspire in SA; Arthouse Contemporary in Nigeria and Bonhams in the UK.

The old masters have continued to perform strongly this season. Bonhams led with Irma Stern’s Arab with Jug selling for £842,500, or just under R15m.

At Strauss & Co, the highest price was paid for Preller’s Adam, which sold for R6.8m, while Robert Hodgins’s Bad Man with Great Threads achieved R2.4m, setting a world record for the artist.

At Aspire, the highest price was for a Preller too, with Profile Figures going for R7m, while Edoardo Villa’s metal sculpture Homage to Maillol achieved R1.2m — a good price for a metal.

In Lagos, Arthouse Contemporary raised $49,000 for Crowd Scene, a watercolour by Nigerian modernist Ben Enwonwu, confirming a strong market for modern African art.

Contemporary artists performed well, with world records set for two South Africans. Athi-Patra Ruga’s Convention … Procession … Elevation tapestry sold for more than R475,000 at Aspire, while Penny Siopis’s Lace Cloth painting neared R1.14m at Strauss and Co, doubling its top estimate of R500,000.

Contemporary works were well represented at Arthouse Contemporary, too, where a wood panel piece by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, entitled Ahe, achieved $60,000.

With a year full of record prices, we expect that the 2016 South African market will record healthy growth and we can look forward to a scintillating 2017 art market.

Scott is a partner in Walker Scott, which offers end-to-end art management services.

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