Reading New Economies

When it comes to the secondary art market, the real picture is revealed in the results. By the looks of those coming from Strauss & Co’s Monday night sale, the picture is bright. However, unlike the aesthetic considerations that one lends to the analysis of conventional pictures, these ones are painted in numbers.

It is fair to say that these numbers present a picture that is at odds with the day to day economic climate in South Africa, where in the past week the Rand was pummeled due to the announcement that the National Prosecuting Authority was pursuing fraud charges against the besieged Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan.

Given such uncertainty in the financial stability of the South African economy led aimlessly by a disinterested president, the fact that the sale amounted to just shy of R60m should be surprising. But it isn’t because the art market is unlike almost any other market out there because the values of its traded commodities are set by a different set of rules.

Writing in the latest edition of e-flux, Hito Steyerl makes the observation that in “times in which financial institutions and even whole political entities may just dissolve into fluffy glitter, investment in art seems somehow more real… Rather than money issued by a nation and administrated by central banks, art is a networked, decentralized, widespread system of value”.

Attesting to this is the fact that Strauss & Co. boasts a consistently high sell-through rate – 82.5% for this auction. Put more simply, out of the 637 lots on sale, a total of 525 found buyers. This would suggest that inbetween the low and high estimates coupled with the commissioned bids and reserves, Strauss & Co. is doing something right.

But how does one read this as a supportive case for the “art as investment” question that inevitably ghosts such figures? In short, one cannot. Steyerl puts forward the notion that art is more akin to a ‘cryptocurrency’ whose trade a governed by a set characteristics that are particular to the context of the individual market place.


Describing such a scenario, she notes that in the art market “there is no central institution to guarantee value; instead there is a jumble of sponsors, censors, bloggers, developers, producers, hipsters, handlers, patrons, privateers, collectors, and way more confusing characters. Value arises from gossip-cum-spin and insider information. Fraudsters and con artists mix helter-skelter with pontificating professors, anxious gallerists, and couch-surfing students”.

So, how does one negotiate their way through this tangled web of push and pull where insight is subject to the spin employed by ‘specialists’ with a vested interest in ensuring that the wheels of this type of capital turn?

A key is hidden in the highlights where aesthetic considerations clash, often violently with provenance, period, size and quality. One of the fronts where this battle is fought the hardest is between living and dead artists, between the modern and contemporary where taste shifts and history is made. Because, underlying the seemingly unmappable cartography of the secondary market is precedent, and the best way to read an auction is through looking at previous records of individual artists. The auction house provides some keys to help you on the way in the form of estimates, which are occasionally modest but generally telling of where the action might sit.

So what follows, in no particular order, is a break down of some the highlights. Deduce what you will, use the information at your own peril, but know that in the future, herein lies the rub.

Alexis Preller’s “Egrets” which is a relatively small painting considering the artists broader oeuvre, fetched almost R550K, well about its high estimate of R200k. Those carrying Preller’s should keep an eye on Strauss & Co’s forthcoming Johannesburg sale in November.

Irma Stern typically performed well with her “Still Life with Lilies” coming in at R10.5m above the high estimate of R7m. However, whilst the majority of her other lots performed well, a surprise was the no sale of her “Still Life with Roses and Bromeliads” where the bidding failed to achieve the low estimate of R2m, suggesting that the market for such trophy works is limited to one per sale.

A sculptural work that performed beyond expectations was Sydney Kumalo’s “Study for  Mythological Rider” which went beyond the high estimate of R800 000 to fetch R1.36m. Similarly Stanley Pinker was bolstered by some late bidding which saw his Tietiesbaai go beyond the high estimate of R700 000 to bring in R1.2m.

For those with something of a more contemporary palette, an encouraging sign was Penny Siopis’ Lace Cloth doubling its high estimate of R500 000 to achieve R1.13m at a time when her international visibility is gaining ground in London.

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