A walk through the display of artworks coming up for sale at the Aspire Art auction this Sunday at GIBS makes for an interesting opportunity to consider the new directions the art market is taking.
Of course, there are some of the big-name modernists in evidence. You’ll see an exciting work by Alexis Preller – his very last work, still incomplete when he died. There are works by Pierneef and a Maggie Loubser with estimates in the millions. Also representing the top end of the market is a William Kentridge drawing that was prepared for, but wasn’t finally included, in the last of his four animated films, Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old – a rare find. So far, so good … and so predictable.
The works themselves are wonderful and justifiably cause much excitement among collectors in that league, which remains important for an auction house like Aspire, but perhaps more interesting to note is the overall absence of what you might call the middle market – the realistic 20th-century South African landscapes in oil and so on that typically go for a few hundred thousand rand. This, according to Aspire marketing manager James Sey, is a deliberate, strategic choice to focus on “emerging segments” or the areas of the art market where there is potential for growth, or for value to be unlocked, rather than relying on the traditionally popular 20th-century work.
So, there’s a good selection of works by “previously under-represented black artists”, modernist artists of the kind recently reintroduced to the public consciousness by A Black Aesthetic, the showstopping exhibition of works from the University of Fort Hare collection at the Standard Bank Gallery earlier this year. At the top end are works by the likes of Gerard Sekoto, George Pemba and Dumile Feni, but then the likes of Nat Mokgosi and Ezrom Legae are also generating interest.
Another new area of focus is photography, an area, Sey argues, where South African work is on a par with international work, but somehow collectors haven’t cottoned on to it. Where prices are defined by the international market, they reflect the true potential of some of these works. One of Pieter Hugo’s works from the famous Hyena Men series, for example, has an estimate hovering around half a million rand. There are wonderful works by David Goldblatt from On the Mines, as well as younger stars like Zanele Muholi and Mikhael Subotzky.
The burgeoning field of contemporary art figures too, with the likes of Nelson Makamo and Benon Lutaaya, the Ugandan-born artist who died from cancer at the age of 34 earlier this year, figuring prominently.
As exciting as it is to see an auction house pinning its future on its ability to develop new and “traditionally neglected markets” – something that is undeniably important for the growth and development of the local art market in general – it’s a strategy that comes with challenges. One of the most important, Sey points out, is the simple fact that public art institutions and museums in South Africa are so underfunded they can’t fulfil all their traditional functions, which include research and publication and education more broadly. All of these things are fundamental, not only to developing new markets, but also to unlocking the value in works that have been neglected in the past, such as the “black modernists” brought to the fore by A Black Aesthetic. In that case, the exhibition itself aimed prompt new and better scholarship.
In the art market, provenance is central to ensuring the authenticity and value of works. If you can trace the history of a work; prove who owned it; where it was bought and sold; which exhibitions and books it has appeared in, it adds to its value. It’s a combination of pedigree and certainty that develops value.
Increasingly, says Sey, the auction houses themselves have to step in where these records and resources don’t exist and where research is needed. “Private collectors and collections have increasingly become responsible for developing a place for fine art in our national cultural identity,” he said in an article he wrote relating to the upcoming auction. He also quotes his colleague at Aspire, Emma Bedford, who says, “Our approach to developing value in the contemporary segment benefits greatly from our commitment to excellence in our research, writing, cataloguing and presentation processes.”
The Preller work was forensically analysed by prominent art analyst Gerard de Kamper, chief curator ceramics and collections management at the University of Pretoria, using infrared scanning to see beneath its surface.
The public lectures and talks by experts, which the auction house puts on, and the catalogues themselves, have become not only an important resource for established collectors, who rely on them for their records and research, but also serve as an important tool for breaking down barriers to entry and inviting new buyers to develop their interest.
Of course, this approach comes with its pros and cons. Public institutions and scholarship cannot be replaced but, at an exciting time like this, when the market is changing rapidly, something needs to be done to draw works like those on auction into the mainstream.
THREE ASPIRE ART TALKS AND AN AUCTION
This weekend, Aspire Art will be holding a series of talks relating to some of the works on auction.
ASPIRE ART TALKS
WHEN: Saturday June 1
TIME: 10 to 10.45 am
WHAT: William Kentridge: Drawing and Films. A talk by Emma Bedford followed by a screening of the film William Kentridge 4 Films.
WHEN: Saturday June 1
TIME: 11 am to 12.15 pm
WHAT: The Last Preller: The life, legacy and final painting of Alexis Preller. A talk by Ruarc Peffers followed by a screening of the film SABC Men of Merit featuring Alexis Preller, 1976.
WHEN: Saturday June 1
TIME: 12.30 to 1.30 pm
WHAT: The Rise and Rise of Collectable Photographs.A panel discussion moderated by James Sey with speakers John Fleetwood, Makgati Molebatsi and Kathryn Del Boccio.
ASPIRE ART AUCTION
WHEN: Sunday June 2
WHAT: Aspire Art Auction
TIME: From 6pm
VENUE: GIBS, 26 Melville Road, Illovo