Top dollar:  The 2017 auction market has increased overall over the same 2016 period. The star lot at the Strauss & Co March sale in Cape Town was Irma Stern’s Young Arab. It sold for R13.64m. Picture: SUPPLIED
Top dollar: The 2017 auction market has increased overall over the same 2016 period. The star lot at the Strauss & Co March sale in Cape Town was Irma Stern’s Young Arab. It sold for R13.64m. Picture: SUPPLIED

The pricing benchmark for art is traditionally set through auction sales. However, this metric could become unreliable in determining the art market size. Global auction house sales have declined 18.8% year on year to $16.9bn. Private sales by dealers have increased as much as 25% annually, accounting for an estimated 70% of all sales worldwide. The latest art market report issued by the European Fine Art Foundation suggests buyers and sellers are increasingly seeking privacy and opacity, away from transparent auction dealings.

Gallery sale figures occasionally emerge, particularly when markets do well, which was the case at the 48th edition of Art Basel in May. On the first VIP preview day, it was reported some dealers had concluded sales in the tens and twenties of millions of dollars. By the second day, against a climate of economic confidence, it was announced the David Zwirner gallery had achieved more than $40m in sales. Highlights included Italian artist Alberto Burri’s Sacco (1954), which sold for $10m and a selection of paintings and works on paper by South African-born Marlene Dumas priced between $150,000 and $3m.

The art market was upbeat indeed when during Sotheby’s May sale in New York, a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, set the record for the most expensive artwork at auction by any contemporary American artist and broke the record for a black artist too. It sold to Japanese entrepreneur and contemporary art collector Yusaku Maezawa for $110.5m.

Contemporary African art has received much attention in the first six months of 2017. In Paris, Bernard Arnaut’s Foundation Louis Vuitton is hosting a much talked-about three-part exhibition, Art/Afrique, le nouvel, Atelier that ends on August 28. The exhibition includes a selection of contemporary South African works from the foundation’s collection alongside pieces owned by major African art collector Jean Pigozzi.

At the 57th Venice Biennale, on view until 26 November, art lovers are treated to a remarkable selection of contemporary African art. While only a small number of African artists are included in the main curated show, the eight African national pavilions — Tunisia, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Kenya, Angola, Zimbabwe and SA — display a wide array of their selected artists. The exhibitions confirm that ingenious, forward-thinking artists are producing outstanding art on the continent. Two powerful video installations, by Mohau Modisakeng and Candice Breitz, received great reviews and won the South African pavilion a place in the Artsy’s respected Eleven Best Pavilions category.

While there is a definite interest in African art, the question remains whether the art market will follow this new focus. Sotheby’s modern and contemporary African art department in London successfully launched its inaugural sale in May, achieving a respectable £2.8m in sales with a sell-through rate of 78%. The two star lots, Earth Developing More Roots by El Anatsui and Sunflowers by Irma Stern, achieved £728,750 and £416,750. The sale also marked the auction debut of South African artist Nicholas Hlobo, whose mixed media work sold for £60,000, well above its £12,000 top estimate.

The sell-through rate at Lagos’ Arthouse Contemporary was slow at the May sale, with only 60% of the 98 lots finding new owners. The top lot, a bronze by Ben Enwonwu, sold for R2.2m.

The 2017 local auction market kicked off with an overall increase over the same period in 2016. At the Strauss & Co June sale in Johannesburg, a JH Pierneef oil on canvas, Farm Jonkershoek with Twin Peaks Beyond, Stellenbosch, was knocked down at a staggering R18m. The final selling price, including commission and taxes, of R20.46m was way above its top auction estimate of R8m. At Strauss’s March sale in Cape Town, the star lot, Irma Stern’s Young Arab, sold for an impressive R13.64m.

Aspire Art Auctions set various significant records at its second sale in March in Cape Town. A JH Pierneef, A View Across Fisherman’s Cove, Seychelles, sold for R4m. Edoardo Villa’s Vertical Composition achieved R1.6m under the hammer against a top estimate of R800,000.

Contemporary artworks fared particularly well with Steven Cohen’s photograph Chandelier selling for R176,204, seven times his previous record on auction. A Joachim Schönfeldt sculpture, Maquette5, sold for R159,152, an exciting development in the build-up to his retrospective exhibition scheduled for the Wits Art Museum later in 2017. While the Alexis Preller market rose in 2016, early signs indicate that 2017 may well become the year of Maggie Laubser. At Strauss & Co in March, her painting Shepherd Seated with his Flock, sold for R3.5m, well beyond its top estimate of R2.5m, while Black Swan reached R1.3m against its top estimate of R900,000.

At Strauss’s May sale, Basutoland Hills doubled its average estimate selling at R1.4m, while Landscape with Water Carriers and Geese achieved a healthy R1.35m against a top estimate of R1m. These results indicate the onset of an upswing in Laubser’s market.

Thus far, the African art market has performed very well and there is optimism 2017 will conclude on a high note.

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

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