The recent auction at Strauss & Co in Cape Town saw an African record price for an Irma Stern painting, Children Reading the Koran, painted during the artist’s first trip to Zanzibar in 1939. The work sold for R22.3m to a bidder in the room. While this is a record for a work sold on the African continent, Stern also holds the auction price world record for a South African artist for Arab Priest, another Zanzibar creation, which sold for £3m in London in 2011. This headlined a sale that represents a dramatic upturn in sales volume and market activity in the local market.
The sale in total earned R70.5m from 110 lots, with an 80% sell-through rate. The top prices achieved are eye-catching, with bidding also very competitive for works by JH Pierneef. His Highveld Landscape from 1945 sold for just over R8m. Another Pierneef (one of several works on auction from the Naspers corporate collection) Red Kloof from 1928, sold for R5.5m.
Strauss made much of the sale representing a rebound in the local art market for the usually dependable modernist, mid-century painting segment, often used as a bellwether for the liquidity of the art-collecting market as a whole. The high prices and demand for the Stern and Pierneef works on the sale, as well as mid-century work by the likes of Alexis Preller and Hugo Naudé, adds to the bullishness around the local art market stemming from strong sales for the recent Cape Town Art Fair.
Says Strauss chair Frank Kilbourn: “I always say that buying art is an act of optimism and belief, and with the performance of this auction, we’ve seen a revival of belief in the art market as a safe haven for investment after the economic slump caused by the pandemic.”
Kilbourn is also encouraged by the makeup of the buyers on the sale. “15% of the buyers were with us for the first time, and most of them were local, which again indicates a firming of the domestic market.”
While local buyers made up the majority of collectors on this landmark sale, Kilbourn points out that the expansion of the online platforms of the business developed during the pandemic have enabled a consistent expansion of numbers of international bidders.
“The breadth of our offering on this sale, from late 19th-century work to achieving a record price for young contemporary painter Ruby Swinney, is important in sustaining the market, but the high prices achieved for the mid-century modernist artists like Stern and Pierneef indicates their importance in driving value for South African art,” he concludes.