Art brings hope to South Africa in troubled times

Maggie Laubser’s Birds and Boats is a signed oil on canvas laid down on board measuring 15½ x 19½in (39.5 x 49.5cm), which sold for R1.3m hammer – around £59,000 – against an estimate of R700,000-900,000 at Strauss & Co on March 14.

Maggie Laubser’s Birds and Boats is a signed oil on canvas laid down on board measuring 15½ x 19½in (39.5 x 49.5cm), which sold for R1.3m hammer – around £59,000 – against an estimate of R700,000-900,000 at Strauss & Co on March 14.

The art market is a beacon of hope in these troubled times for South Africa, but those who want to be part of the success story need to prepare now

One moment, it was very much a man’s world, the next it is women coming to the fore in the South African art market.

This is the result of the death on Christmas Day of Stephan Welz, the colossus of the country’s art market for the past 30 years and more, and the passing of the baton to the new joint managing directors at Strauss & Co, the country’s leading auction house, Bina Genovese and Vanessa Phillips. Add to their skills, contacts and experience the talents of fine art specialists Ann Palmer and Emma Bedford, and the future vision rests very much on the shoulders of the women in the firm chaired by Elisabeth Bradley.

But back to Welz the man for a moment.

The dominant force for so many years in a way that no other individual can claim to have been in any other art market across the globe, his name added lustre to the works he offered for sale in a way that no one else has ever been able to imitate. The top consignors to auction looked for his personal touch as the magic ingredient, as so often it proved to be.

Such was his competitive spirit that despite ongoing health issues he never lost his edge, even taking R8.5m (£393,520) for the oil and gesso work The Creation of Adam I (1968) by Alexis Preller, the rising star of South African art, in Johannesburg on November 9.

So it was no surprise that the man Strauss & Co described as their “living archive” had two memorial services – one in Johannesburg, the other in Cape Town – and that just about the whole of the South African art market turned out to pay their respects.

Generational change in South Africa’s art scene

Welz’s passing marks not just the end of an era in the terms of his influence. It comes at a time of huge change in the South African art scene as the leading lights of the older generation give way to the new. With that change comes a whole new approach to art and antiques and the way they are marketed. And it all comes as the rand sinks to a new low against sterling amid political uncertainty and the shadow of recession. Five years ago the exchange rate was around 10 rand to the pound; now its sits at around 23.

The mood on the street is negative, as those I talked to in Cape Town and beyond told me at the beginning of February. But strangely, this is not reflected in the art market, where the trade, represented by the South African Antique, Art & Design Association (SAADA) have boosted membership by bringing in the pick of the Contemporary art dealerships to their Cape Town fair with a view to permanent membership of the association.

Having rebranded the association itself in 2013, they moved the fair, now called the SAADA Expo, to The Lookout in the V&A Waterfront last year and packed it out for 2016’s event from February 11-13, no mean feat bearing in mind that it is a considerably larger space than the old venue in the Botanical Gardens.

This was a shrewd move, because the Expo now finds itself right in the centre of the tourist trail for cash-rich evening visitors, who would only be attracted to the botanical gardens during daylight hours.

In turn, the blending of antiques with Contemporary art, and the new policy of marketing traditional objects as pieces of design and sculpture is helping to attract a new and younger domestic audience.

For the Contemporary art galleries, the endorsement of the SAADA brand sets them apart from the mass of other galleries that wouldn’t get past the vetting committee, while the new players help expand the reach and influence of the traditional SAADA membership.

Cape Town and Johannesburg trade adapting their approach

“I no longer market myself as a silver dealer; I sell sculptural artefacts that just happen to be in the form of silver,” says Jeremy Astfalck, former SAADA chairman and owner of The Old Corkscrew, who is the one South African dealer who regularly stands at British fairs (Olympia, LAPADA and the NEC).

“Alongside the Contemporary art this is definitely attracting a younger crowd.”

Some believe that it may also be showing signs of crossing the colour bar. And this is the holy grail for the art market in South Africa: attracting the interest and engagement of the newly prosperous black middle classes who simply do not relate to the traditional collecting fields in South Africa, much of it based on colonial history.

Astfalck, a huge admirer of how his successor at SAADA, Paul Mkrusic, has moved things on, is adamant that taking a new and dynamic approach does not mean compromising where it matters.

“The quality still has to be there for art and objects, including their history.”

He is also finding that his trips to stand at fairs in the UK pay off back home, where contacts he has made turn up at his Franschhoek gallery to make the most of the fabulous exchange rate.

These ‘swallows’, as they are known, because they fly south for winter, have been a staple of the market for years. The trade members among them, from the US, UK and Europe, come to snap up the best of what remains from old family collections for resale at a decent mark-up back home. Although some market watchers, like retired auctioneer Charles Rudd, believe that most of the European heirlooms have already been flushed out from colonial settler families, they still see treasures emerging that make the trip more than worthwhile.

Having closed his own Cape Town auction house in November, Rudd is still very active as an independent valuer and appraiser. Reflecting on the generational shift in the market, he is wistful about the gradual disappearance of the expertise in traditional collecting fields, but says South Africa still has a lot to offer here and believes that many European dealers and collectors are still missing out.

Weak rand attracting buyers to the Cape

“As far as the antiques side is concerned, there are still strong buyers and sellers in the traditional market and I would encourage the international trade to come down,” he says, noting the high level of fresh-to-market items available.

He acknowledges the gap left by Welz but is one of many who warn against writing off Strauss & Co, who, it must be remembered, remain the strongest domestic force in South African art. Also best remembered is that continuity is a strong feature because those now at the helm are not new at all to the company but worked with Welz for years – collectively 48 years, in fact. And they have a record R200m turnover for 2015 to build on. Add to that the strong brand and solid database of clients and their future certainly looks much more positive.

“Contrary to what happened internationally where major auction houses elected to operate only at the top end of the market and are now having to rethink their strategies, Strauss & Co has continued to operate in both the high end and the middle market (this also includes furniture and decorative arts) reaping substantial benefits both ways,” says Genovese.

“The weak rand, along with exceptionally high buyer’s premiums and VAT rates charged, have become a deterrent for local buyers. Conversely, the weak rand is extremely attractive for international buyers that are noticeably on the rise, in particular for decorative arts.”

Strauss are not without their rivals, foremost among them in South Africa itself being Stephan Welz & Co, the company Welz the man sold in 2006 when ill, only to recover his heath and his ambition, which led to the creation of Strauss & Co.

Ironically, despite carrying his name, the firm is still often referred to as Sotheby’s, a legacy of its former incarnation as the auction giant’s South African outpost.

With a new-look website and beefed up media section, as well as a range of specialisms that now includes vintage fashion, its owner Alan Demby clearly has his eye on an even more competitive future, especially now Welz the man is no longer a player.

These two, with Ashbey’s Galleries upping their game on European art but on a smaller scale, are setting the pace domestically.

One thing is for certain: all eyes will be on the next two or three series of sales to see how the rivals perform. The first test has been the March sales in Cape Town, which are still being assessed.

Bonhams continue to dominate international scene

On the international scene, though, Bonhams continue to dominate. It is ten years since Giles Peppiatt established The South African Sale in London and new records for Irma Stern, Vladimir Tretchikoff and others have held sway, even when lesser artists have failed to make their mark.

Here the weak rand is Bonhams’ greatest gift when it comes to consignments: quite simply, they are able to sell them for much more in London than their rivals can in Cape Town, with the caveat that currency rules mean that sellers from South Africa must re-import a hefty slice of the profits.

As for the art itself, Irma Stern and Jacob Hendrik Pierneef have dominated for a long time, but others have been showing strongly in recent years, among them William Kentridge, Alexis Preller, Gerard Sekoto, Maggie Laubser and Stanley Pinker.

“South African artists that should be followed and will in my opinion continue to appreciate are Stanley Pinker, Robert Hodgins and Lucas Sithole,” says Peppiatt. “The one artist who I think that will eventually eclipse all the South African hands is Gerard Sekoto. I would not be surprised if we sell a work by Sekoto for over a £1m in the next ten years.”

Pan-African art the next big shift

The next big shift, though, is likely to be towards the Contemporary artists from South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and the Cote D’Ivoire, among other African countries, whose work is already being championed by new galleries in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Africa’s most successful living artist, the Ghanaian El Anatsui, has already crossed over into Western taste. His Gustav Klimt-like bottle-top installations sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds, have won prizes at the Royal Academy and have been on show at the Met in New York and the Venice Biennale.

Events such as 1:54, the Contemporary African art and photography fair that now runs in New York and London each year, are championing new and established African talent, with the art taking on global as well as continental themes, creating mass appeal in their wake.

Names such as Sokari Douglas Camp, a Nigerian in his late fifties, Mali’s Abdoulaye Konaté, in his sixties, and Adeola Olangunju a 29-year-old Nigerian photographer living and working in Lagos, are indicative of the explosion of talent and creativity to be found. This is an unstoppable force.

Names to watch coming out of South Africa itself now include Athi-Patha Ruga, Zander Blom, Michael Taylor and Georgina Gratrix, says Genovese at Strauss.

When the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa opens around the end of this year on Cape Town’s Waterfront as the continent’s largest gallery of its type, it should provide a hitherto absent hub for Contemporary African art that has the potential to catapult South Africa onto the international art market, taking it well beyond the modest $35m auction market value it now enjoys to something on an altogether grander scale in a global market valued at around $55 billion. If that happens, those far-sighted enough to be ready for this will be the market leaders of the future. And it will be them, whether galleries, fairs or auction houses, who will also reap the rewards of the new and younger domestic market.

Players line up for market’s next phase

Bonhams, who already hold Contemporary African art sales in London and whose London specialists across several departments can be found in the Cape on a monthly basis, are clearly getting ready for the next phase.

“The growth of Contemporary African art over the past four years has been extraordinary and nominal values have risen by over 200% in some areas,” says Peppiatt.

“In my opinion the art market in South Africa is on the verge of being the key springboard for the larger African market. There has been such growth in Contemporary African art, both from South Africa and further North, and South Africa deserves to be at the forefront of this market.”

He and his colleague Hannah O’Leary keep a close eye on the political scene in South Africa, how the Government and economy are shaping up in that other great African art centre, Nigeria, and how that all plays into the art scene.

“Those lacking a global view are most at risk of missing the boat when it comes to the changing scene in both South Africa and the continent as a whole,” says Peppiatt.

Phillips are now openly preparing to makes moves on the pan-African market and the organisers of the Cape Town Art Fair have clearly taken this message on board too. They moved the event from the Waterfront to the much bigger Cape Town International Convention Centre for its February 19 to 21 run – a bold statement.

Displaying pan-African Contemporary art, its stated aims include showcasing new trends, exposing collectors to new artists and, perhaps most interesting of all, adapting the best international practices to build and sustain an economic platform for the art market.

The challenge for the traditional auction houses and dealers in the country is to make sure they do not miss the chance to join the party when it starts.

Like London, Cape Town has the advantage of being a nice place to do business, which can only add to the mix.

Mortgage rates may be going up and food prices rising, but the art market offers a beacon of hope in these troubled times for the Rainbow Nation.