Strauss & Co’s executive director Susie Goodman mid-auction. Picture: Supplied
Strauss & Co’s executive director Susie Goodman mid-auction. Picture: Supplied

Art might not be considered an "essential" item in the context of a global pandemic and lockdown. Yet the art auction market and sale of high-priced artworks has, surprisingly, continued.

Ordinarily it would be cause for concern that few expensive artworks are exceeding the maximum estimates assigned by the auction house. But in tough trading times such as these it has been comforting to note that works around the R10m mark are still finding buyers.

This is partially due to the fact that auction houses have been cultivating online platforms for some time. In pre-Covid times, internet auctions were usually limited to lower-priced, less valuable items.

High-priced works were flogged in live settings, supported by cocktail parties and four-course dinner events. The thinking must have been that this was the only way to attract buyers who’d be inclined to spend more than R10m on an artwork.

Lockdowns and social distancing in SA and in the UK — with London being a vital hub for the resale of contemporary and modern African art — forced auction houses to conduct major sales online. The results have proved that not only is the market stable, but so is an appetite for artworks with high price tags — and without popping a single champagne cork.

In times of economic strife it might not be unexpected that the secondary market for art is so active, especially given that some may be forced to sell their valuables in order to survive or soften the blow to their savings. Others may be wishing to invest in a market that is less volatile (than others) and acquire works by lauded artists for lesser sums.

Irma Stern’s Grape Packer
Irma Stern’s Grape Packer

It was the sale of Irma Stern’s Grape Packer at Sotheby’s March sale of Modern and Contemporary African Art in London that signalled that the market had remained stable, despite the world turning upside down, under lockdown. Ordinarily it would not have been much of a talking point that this 1959 oil painting, depicting a farm worker with a baby on her back, fetched almost R9m (£435,000). Stern’s paintings typically command high sums at auctions. In March 2019, at an SA-based sale at Strauss & Co, her Two Arabs (1939) fetched R20m (including buyer’s premiums).

A week before the Sotheby’s March sale Watussi Chief’s Wife (1946), also by Stern, fetched R10m (£447,000) at Bonhams in London. This sale was a live one at a very uncertain time: Covid-19 was spreading around the world and lockdown measures had not yet been taken. Buyers were worried about the outcome of the auction and a number of artworks were withdrawn. While the Stern sale was a good sign, art observers didn’t feel this auction reflected the status of the market in the Covid-19 era.

The Sotheby’s London sale was intended to be a live one, before lockdown and physical distancing prevented this. Its outcome was uncertain and art insiders waited anxiously for the results.

Irma Stern’s Zanzibar Arab
Irma Stern’s Zanzibar Arab

Usually there’d have been disappointment that the results rarely exceeded the high estimates set for them. Stern’s Grape Packer was expected to have fetched up to £550,000 (around R12m) instead of the R9m it attracted. The figures fetched in this Sotheby’s auction also appeared meatier to us in SA, given our currency’s decline in relation to the pound. If the auctions had taken place a month or so earlier the R9m Stern would have been an R8.2m one (at R19 to one pound).

Virtual Horizons

Art trading, like many activities, has gravitated towards online platforms. Many dealers and gallerists are trying to engage more online with their collectors. Research until now has suggested that the internet-based art economy is not as fast moving as the live one. Only 5% of total gallery sales were made online in 2019, according to the UBS Art Basel Art Market 2020 report.

This report embraces a global view, but offers some insight into the role online platforms have been playing in reaching collectors. A larger percentage of these internet sales were made by smaller galleries, affirming insights from previous surveys about online art trading that suggests that lower-priced items are more likely to be sold virtually.

Irma Stern’s Still Life with Lilies
Irma Stern’s Still Life with Lilies

This is not unexpected; the popularity of art fairs and the rapid consumption of contemporary art over the past decade has much to do with the fact that people relish physical engagement with art, particularly in lifestyle-orientated social settings.

With such events on hold for the foreseeable future, art organisers have chosen to stage virtual fairs. Art Basel Hong Kong, Frieze New York and 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair are examples.

"We had to postpone (our live event) to 2021," says Touria El Glaoui, the founding director of the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, which takes place in London, New York and Marrakesh.

"We had so many costs that we could not do refunds (to galleries) for it. Through an online platform (Artsy), we had to try to give value to those galleries which had invested with us already in our New York edition."

Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga’s Ko Bungisa Mbala Mibale 2
Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga’s Ko Bungisa Mbala Mibale 2

1-54 New York’s online manifestation lasted longer than the physical event but sales seem to have been slower. Are buyers preferring to invest in more established artists? The success of Sotheby’s March sale didn’t extend only to "safe" modernist "investment" artworks but quality works by contemporary and/or living artists too.

Two works by Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, the Congolese artist famous for his glossy sort of pop-Afrofuturist paintings, did well; Ko Bungisa Mbala Mibale 2 fetched R1.4m (£62,000). This is, remarkably, almost the same amount one of his works was commanding at the Investec Cape Town Art Fair in February.

Some sceptics may have thought the good results at Sotheby’s were simply a reflection that the London auction market, the largest and arguably the most important with regard to African art, had stabilised since the bumpy Bonhams sale at the start of the pandemic.

However, the sale of two high-priced Irma Stern works at Strauss & Co’s May 11 virtual sale conducted via the Invaluable platform proved that South Africans are not shy about buying works of this calibre online. A sombre portrait of an old man, titled Zanzibar Arab (1945), sold for R11m and a colourful work featuring a Buddhist statuette in Still Life with Lilies, dated 1947, for R14m.

William Kentridge Felix in exile
William Kentridge Felix in exile

Initially, having postponed this auction (which was due to take place at the end of March) Strauss & Co was clearly less confident about the efficacy of the online environment for high-priced works. The auction house might have also thought the lockdown would be short-lived. It went ahead with an online sale (with different lots) in early April. The sell-through rate was high — over 70%, including for jewellery and other decorative items — but there were no high-priced items. SA auction houses seem to rely on live auctions to sell expensive works.

It may be about timing. Aspire Art’s online auction of prints and multiples produced by Caversham Press had the misfortune of taking place on the first day of lockdown. So perhaps it was not unexpected that almost half of the lots (90 in total) went unsold.

Significantly, it was the higher-priced ones — produced by William Kentridge — that did sell and with good results. A drypoint etching Untitled (Felix in Exile) from 1994 achieved R644,875 and the Untitled (Black Ubu) suite fetched R234,500.

"We were extremely pleased to have managed a successful auction during the lockdown initiation period when the SA public, generally, was anxious regarding the uncertainties and concerns around the global health pandemic," says Ruarc Peffers, Aspire’s MD. "Our ability to achieve significant results in the face of this crisis indicates the relative strength of the art market."

Alexis Preller’s Space Angel
Alexis Preller’s Space Angel

Strauss & Co has been conducting online sales since 2013 but it took Covid-19 to push sellers and collectors to fully embrace virtual platforms. These latest results will be a boost for the local art world and collectors looking to offload high-priced works.

They confirm that the domestic art market has adapted to new trading conditions and is more or less stable. Of course, the Sterns might have fetched a lot more in "normal" times. Zanzibar Arab might have attracted up to R20m if you look at the figures other works from the Zanzibar era have achieved in the past.

Masterpieces are indeed selling for less. The 1971 Alexis Preller work Space Angel, which sold for R5.6m in this Strauss auction, fetched R1m more when the auction house sold it in 2016.

The focus is now on achieving sales, not breaking previous records.

  • Corrigall is an art consultant and author of the SA Art Market: Pricing & Patterns



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