As history keeps hammering home, tastes change — even in the rarefied world of art auctions. Stephan Welz & Co, which has been selling art and antiques on the auction room floor for nearly 50 years, is putting a toe into the primary art market.
"We need to broaden our horizons," says Nicolette Barnard, the company’s new exhibitions co-ordinator.
"We’re trying to reach a new audience; people who may be interested in starting to collect. In SA there’s really such a small percentage of collectors. And at most auctions, it’s 19th and 20th century work [on sale]; there’s not a lot of contemporary art."
The auctioneer’s first foray into territory usually claimed by galleries and dealers is a curated three-day exhibition called City Lights … and Shadows, to be held at the Killarney Country Club in September. It will showcase work by established names such as Sam Nhlengethwa and Roger Ballen, and newcomers such as Mozambican artist Lizette Chirrime.
Efforts will be made to make the experience as nonintimidating as possible. Prices will be clearly displayed, artists and experts will be on hand to talk about the work and there will be none of the formality and pressure-cooker atmosphere for which auction rooms are famous.
"Auctions can be quite daunting spaces to go into," says Carol Brown of Curate.a.Space, the Durban-based museum and art consultancy that the auctioneer has asked to curate the show.
"You’re sort of expected to bid and have lots of money, and know how the process works — people are terrified of shaking their heads or scratching their noses. The advantage of a curated show is that the ambience is much friendlier and less threatening."
The auctioneer is interested in selling to the black professional and middle class, as well as young people who have the means to buy fine art but may not know how to avoid spending inordinate amounts on "something that is décor".
Contemporary art is more appealing to this new audience. "Young professionals are not really going to be interested in buying a Victorian painting; now it’s about contemporary art — and African art; it’s enormous even internationally," Brown notes.
But contemporary works seldom appear at auctions. Traditionally, a strict divide existed between the primary and secondary art markets.
"New work was seldom auctioned; it had to come from a previous owner, with a provenance," Brown says.
Art writer and critic Sean O’Toole says as a rule, it is considered suspect for an auction house to act as seller of first instance of a work.
"The idea is that works of quality and scarcity are vetted for sale and then offered on the open market, which an auction house is supposed to represent. It is a bit like a stock market," he says. "The idea is that this secondary market [mainly auction houses], as distinct from the primary market [dealers, private salesmen] is a transparent and fair system for setting the price for an artist, living or dead."
Selling work by living artists on auction can be abused, says O’Toole, as dealers can bid on their own artists, to protect their prices or to overstate their value to achieve higher prices in the future.
"Artists are also known to directly consign work to auction houses for ‘resale’ when in fact it is freshly minted. In SA, auction houses do the converse and sometimes approach artists for work to sell," O’Toole says.
Holding selling shows or curated exhibitions is a way around some of these complexities. "Damien Hirst and Dylan Lewis … have both had selling shows of new work with auction houses," says O’Toole. "But these sales were flagged as selling shows of new work, because otherwise it would muddy the waters."
Stephan Welz & Co says it is following an international trend for auction houses to hold curated exhibitions.
Barnard says artists have "a lot of fear" about putting their work on auction in case it doesn’t sell and "devalues them". At an exhibition, prices can be set and artists’ minds can be put at ease. The company has also brought in an experienced curator for an extra stamp of approval.
Brown, formerly director of the Durban Art Gallery, has curated shows in Australia, the US and the UK. Her first experience with an auction house was with Bonhams in London in 2011, when she curated a nonselling exhibition with an auction to provide historical context to the work on sale.
Stephan Welz & Co offered work directly for sale to the public in The Studio on Nelson Mandela Square, but it didn’t last. It concedes this show is something of an experiment.
Barnard is working on a second exhibition of prints by photographer Jurgen Schadeberg. She hopes the exhibitions will nurture future collectors and tempt some of the more traditional collectors to branch out and buy contemporary work.
City Lights … and Shadows shows at the Killarney Country Club in Johannesburg, from September 5 to 7.