Da Vinci's 'Salvator Mundi' painting sold for a record-smashing $450.3m. Picture: REUTERS
Da Vinci's 'Salvator Mundi' painting sold for a record-smashing $450.3m. Picture: REUTERS

In the art world 2017 will be remembered for several major events and record sales. Topping the list is Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, sold for $450.3m on November 15 at Christies in New York.

The oil painting, known as The Last da Vinci, is one of fewer than 20 paintings accepted to be by the artist’s hand and the lingering doubts over its authenticity makes the sale even more fascinating.

It was also the last known work of the artist still privately owned; the others are in museums. It was owned by Dmitry Rybolovlev, an avid Russian art collector who purchased it for $127m in 2013. A Saudi prince was identified as the buyer.

Salvator Mundi shattered the world record for any work of art ever sold privately or at auction. The record was previously held by Interchange, a 1955 oil painting by Dutch-American abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning that was purchased by the hedge fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin in September 2015 for a reported $300m in a private sale.

Earlier in 2017, the sale of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s skull painting Untitled also shook the art world. It was bought for $110.5m by Japanese collector Yusaku Maezawa and broke the record for a work by a US artist sold at auction.

The art world’s exuberance was at play too in Damien Hirst’s remarkable, if controversial, show Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable held at the two Venetian venues of the Pinault Collection during the Venice Biennale. The exhibition, which was 10 years in the making and closed on December 3, was a tour de force in which storytelling, fantasy and extravagance combined to fill up two museums with a dizzying array of objects and sculptures in marble, bronze, crystal and jade depicting fantastical creatures.

The largest piece, an 18m high bronze Demon, dominated the atrium of the Palazzo Grassi. Some applauded it, others called it the worst show ever. But Hirst’s creation is unprecedented when it comes to scale and effort.

SA had sterling representation at the Venice Biennale with Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng creating spectacular film installations at the South African pavilion. Both artists explored with poignancy the politics of exile and the refugee crisis, a theme that was dominant in many of the works at this year’s biennale.

Another South African artist, Dineo Seshee Bopape, received the prestigious $100,000 Future Generation Art Prize. The exhibition, which shows the works of the 21 young artists who were short-listed for the award, is an official collateral event of the Venice Biennale. Among the artists selected was another South African, Kemang Wa Lehulere, who is the 2017 Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year.

The opening of the Museum of Contemporary African Art in September attracted the local and international art world to Cape Town. The inaugural exhibition showcases a selection of works by acclaimed contemporary African artists including many South Africans.

Visitors to the museum have the opportunity to view works by William Kentridge, Chéri Samba, Wangechi Mutu, Ghada Amer, Athi-Patra Ruga, Kudzanai Chiurai, Kendell Geers, Mohau Modisakeng, Nandipha Mntambo and Mary Sibande, among many others.

The soaring prices for the works of Alexis Preller were recently confirmed in the Strauss November sale in Johannesburg, where Fleurs du Mal went for R8.1m against a top estimate of R6m

Sibande was honoured in November with the 2017 African Arts Award from the Smithsonian in Washington.

The global interest in African art received a further boost with Sotheby’s first standalone sale of modern and contemporary African art taking place in London in May.

Also in London, Bonhams held two sales of modern and contemporary African art and two sales of South African art, bringing to four the total number of auctions dedicated to art from the continent.

On the local auction circuit, the main auction houses set several new artist records.

The top lot by value on Aspire’s November sale was the drawing Soho with Coffee Plunger and Cup by Kentridge from his film Mine, which sold for just under R5.5m with premium. This is a record price for a drawing by Kentridge in SA, nearly doubling the work’s high estimate of R2.5m.

Sydney Kumalo’s Mythological Rider from 1970 sold for R1.9m, far exceeding its top estimate of R1m. This is a significant world record and an exciting development in the market of this sculptor.

Local interest in global contemporary artists also picked up. Earlier in 2017, Golden Mask, a photographic print by acclaimed artist Marina Abramovic was acquired for just under R1.5m.

Strauss & Co achieved its highest single sale turnover with its Johannesburg June sale achieving a total of R89m and an 87% sell-through rate by lot and value combined.

The previously unseen Pierneef painting, Farm Jonkershoek with Twin Peaks Beyond, Stellenbosch, broke the artist’s previous record selling for R20.5m. It was the second-highest price yet achieved for a painting on auction in SA, just short of Irma Stern’s Two Arabs, which sold at Strauss for R21.1m in 2011.

The soaring prices for the works of Alexis Preller were recently confirmed in the Strauss November sale in Johannesburg, where Fleurs du Mal went for R8.1m against a top estimate of R6m.

In September, the FNB Joburg Art Fair celebrated its 10th anniversary with artist Robin Rhode invited as the featured artist — he was at the fair’s inaugural edition too.

The Cape Town Art Fair held its fifth edition in February and recently announced a new partnership with title sponsor Investec which has signed for an initial three years. This bodes well for the future of art in SA.

On the gallery circuit, the calendar ends off on a high note with an exhibition of world renowned Ghanaian artist El Anatsui showing his bottle cap works for the first time on the African continent.

The show entitled Meyina (I am going in the Ewe language of Ghana) has been curated by the Nigerian curator Bisi Silva and runs at the Goodman gallery in Johannesburg until December 20.

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

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