Almost two years ago, when I remarked to the late Stephan Welz that the Strauss & Co. sale at the time seemed smaller than usual, with few quality paintings up for auction, he agreed. “People are just not willing to part with their pictures right now” he explained. This was true. South Africa was on the brink of a recession which is still making itself felt now and the art market was echoing the collective jitters felt by consumers.
But the thing about the art world, especially when it comes to auctions, is that it operates on a different economy that is not always subject to the same pinched nerves that the premature unseating of a finance minister might bring to the market place. In fact, one could say that quite the opposite is the case, with the mantra being “when in doubt, buy art”.
Ahead of their Cape Town sale on Monday, Strauss & Co has issued their biggest catalogue to date with a whopping 637 lots going under the hammer. Collectively they range from classic works dating back to the late19th century to cutting edge contemporary works that are slowly finding their place on the South African secondary market.
Inbetween the vintage and the new, there are enough significant works to satisfy virtually every taste of the collector looking to bolster their holdings with signature examples of South African masters. Naturally Irma Stern is well represented with six lots. Two stand out compositions that should attract attention are her “Still Life with Lilies” (est. R5m – 7m) and her “Still Life with Roses and Bromeliads in a Vase” (est. 2m – 4m).
Yet what gives this sale it’s depth is not so much the trophy pieces by Stern but rather the wealth of her contemporaries also featuring. Embedded in these works are the story of a generation that tracks the lives of the artists themselves. A striking example can be found in the portrait of fellow painter Gregoire Boonzaier by Frieda Lock. Minimally painted with a distinctly muted palette, the painting can be read against Boonzaier’s own self portrait which shows an older man whose searching expression is nevertheless recognisable.
Landscape painting is not necessarily always the most inspiring genre, yet those with a historical eye will notice distinct influences of post-impressionism in Boonzaier’s “Free State Mountains” where his brush work and painterly application resembles Cezanne at his height. Hugo Naudé also provides some flourishes of Cape impressionism in his colourful scenes of the Namaqualand.
Erik Laubscher and Maud Sumner also make a showing in the landscape genre with several lots that are worth noting due to their abstract renderings that signify a creative development in style, form and content. So too does Stanely Pinker, whose “Tietiesbaai” is sure to attract attention with a estimate of between R500 000 – R700 000.
Historical lots aside, the real test of the sale will go down to how well contemporary art performs on the night, providing an indicator as to whether the secondary market has the buoyancy to absorb such work. If one takes the recent performance of Robert Hodgins as anything to go by then his “Cadet Watching TV” “A Golem Couple” and “Ek sal jou ‘n klap gee” all estimated at between R600 000 – R800 000 should exceed expectations.
Penny Siopis, one of the most highly regarded living South African painters recognized both at home internationally, also features on the sale with her “Lace Cloth” being estimated at between R300 000 – R500 000. Here working with thick impasto applied with delicate precision and glorious abandon, Siopis turns her attention to the physical qualities of oil paint which becomes a part of the subject matter itself.
One also has to look to the smaller lots to find other rarities that promise to give weight to any collection of contemporary South African art. Esther Mahlangu’s “Bead Work I & II”, each estimated at between R20 000 – R30 000, are fine examples of a genre of work that resists any easy categorization moving between art and craft with ease.
A sculptural work that will be sure to generate some action on the auction floor is Brett Murray’s “Policeman” estimated at between R30 000 – R50 000. This cheeky portrait of a policeman’s bust with two sticks of TNT protruding from the ears is an early example of one of South Africa’s great agent-provocateurs who has never shied away from political commentary.
For those looking to bolster their print collections, the first lot on the evening sale should attract attention. Estimated and between R30 – R50 000, the AVA/Strauss & Co portfolio features prints Bridget Baker, Lien Botha, Georgina Gratrix, Randy Hartzenburg, Bonolo Kavula, Vuli Nyoni, Andrew Putter and Mandla Vanyaza.
The sheer size of this sale is something in and of itself, suggesting that people with notable works are ready to sell. Perhaps it’s a result of recession jitters where people are cashing in their assets. However, the willingness to consign would nevertheless indicate that those looking to sell are confident enough to test the bullishness of buyers, both old and new alike.