Even though the South African art market has had to weather two challenging years, collectors are showing interest on par with pre-pandemic levels, says Strauss & Co chairperson Frank Kilbourn.
“This is encouraging news for everyone in the art industry, not just the secondary market.” South Africa’s leading art auction house has had a tremendous year, with several world records, sold-out white-glove sales and a growing base of first-time buyers and clients, locally and internationally.
“We believe our ability to switch between live, online and hybrid modes of selling is an important strength. Over the past two years we’ve also learned that the geographical location of an auction is no longer relevant – we don’t have to limit ourselves that way anymore,” he explains.
“The past 18 months have been a defining period for Strauss & Co as it tested our capacities and we responded with an even greater commitment to functioning effectively in the digital world. I want to thank our clients for their loyalty and trust and for adapting so readily to our new and advanced technology-driven platforms,” he says.
Highlights of the year include the following:
Pierneef remains a perennial
South African JH Pierneef once again demonstrated his status as one of the darlings of South African modernism during a first-of-its-kind single-artist auction held in July. All 69 lots of paintings, linocuts, and books about the artist found buyers in this auction. A new world record for a linocut by Pierneef was set by a silhouette image of an imperious baobab. Estimated to sell for R40 000, it attracted 36 bids and eventually sold for R432 440.
“The depth of interest in Pierneef, one of our revered Old Masters, is remarkable,” remarks Dr Alastair Meredith, senior art specialist. During the Johannesburg auction week in November, all 15 Pierneef lots on offer again found buyers, achieving a combined total of R25.4 million. The top-selling individual lot was Pierneef’s beautiful 1952 landscape Bushveld, Pafuri, which sold to a telephone bidder for R11.6 million.
Mid-century painting remains popular among collectors
“The demand for mid-20th-century painting remains conspicuously strong,” says Kilbourn. Collectors continue to pursue post-war and modernist works – the top five lots by value sold during Strauss & Co’s Johannesburg Auction Week in November were all painted in the 1940s and 1950s. In addition to Pierneef, leading South African modernist Alexis Preller also had a standout year, with several lots surpassing the R1 million mark. A new record was also achieved for this artist when the 1965 composition Boy with a Crocodile sold for R10.4 million in October. Namibian artist Adolph Jentsch was another record-breaker when his 1938 landscape, The Farm Kleepforte, Near Windhoek, sold for R2.5 million, the highest price ever achieved for a painting for this artist.
Ceramics are gaining in popularity
“The overwhelming response to our special sessions of art ceramics followed on from the innovative stand-alone ceramics sale we held in 2020,” says Bina Genovese, joint Managing Director at Strauss & Co. “I am delighted to see that sustained enthusiasm for this medium continued among our collectors into 2021.” During the Johannesburg Auction Week all 51 lots in Perfectly Imperfect, a session composed entirely of a single-owner collection of ceramic sculptures by Hylton Nel and Nico Masemola, found buyers. The robust demand for 20th-century art and decor in this category was underscored by two other successful auctions of South African ceramics this year, one of which was the Juanita Bird Collection of items produced by Globe, Ceramic Studio and the iconic Linnware. Demand for collectable ceramic work produced locally continues to rise.
SA wine is making its mark on the Online platform
South Africa’s rightful place among the fine wines of the world received a further shot in the arm with several record prices achieved at auction in 2021. “We are incredibly happy with the results, not only for the sellers, but also for the South African wine industry in general. These positive results elevated the status of iconic, historic South African wine in particular,” says Higgo Jacobs, Strauss & Co wine specialist.
Chris Alheit’s rare 2018 Radio Lazarus, of which only 72 bottles were produced but never released, reached an astounding R25 036 for a single bottle in the October sale. This is, by a long way, the most expensive young South African wine ever sold. Lots from South Africa’s ‘Wine Messiah’ Eben Sadie attracted similar interest with a 12 bottle vertical lot of the flagship red, Columella, dating from 2001 to 2012, reaching R113 800. A magnum of 2004 Columella fetched R12 898 and a 6 bottle case of the 2010 outsold the 2001 vintage at R51 210.
But undoubtedly the biggest highlight of the year was the rare bottle of Grand Constance sweet wine from 1821 that fetched a staggering R967 300 including commission, doubling an earlier auction record set in April this year. “The world record achieved for the bottle of Grand Constance was an extremely important event for the South African wine industry,” says Kilbourn.
“South Africa has a rich, viticultural heritage and the performance of South African wines on the secondary market this year underscores this region’s value as a producer. International buyers and collectors were willing to pay massive amounts for our wines, indicating that this part of the market is coming into its own as discerning investors realise the return on investment that this asset class offers,” he says.