Auction Time #2

The results of Aspire Art Auctions debut sale are in and the numbers tell a story of an art market that is ready to come to the party…almost. One of the first things auction houses will tell you about is their “sell through rate”. This is the percentage of the lots that actually sold on the auction. In these terms Aspire’s first sale recorded a 76% sell through rate. Put into more tangible numbers; of the 121 lots a total of 92 sold.

Normally in an analysis of auction results, the unsold lots are glossed over in favor of the highlights, but it is worth remembering that these no sales too tell a tale of a market places’ desires. Usually such instances are dictated by market exposure, quality and ease of access in other arenas such as dealerships. Not wanting to dwell on these too much, one of the noticeable cases is that of William Kentridge. Generally the lots consisting of prints, editions and  multiples did not find successful bids indicating a desirability for his original drawings which in the case of “Untitled (From the Deluge Series)” went over the top estimate of R1.6m to fetch 1.8m.


Without dwelling on the other unsold lots a notable picture that did not find a buyer was Irma Stern’s “Malay Girl” estimated to fetch between R7m and R10m. Whilst Stern has been the darling of the secondary market in recent years an attributable factor could be that the estimate was unrealistically high with the audience settling for more reasonably priced examples of her work such as “Congolese Woman” which is a gouache sketch that fetched R1.93m above the high estimate of R1.8m.

Pierneef, another secondary market favorite also performed beyond expectations with his “Karoo near Hofmeyer” going under the hammer for R1.8m well above the high estimate of R1.2m.


The real story of this sale however lies in the emergence of a secondary market precedent for contemporary that is slowly emerging. Hostility would be an unfair way of phrasing the strained relationship between buyers on the auction circuit and contemporary art. Firstly, contemporary art is usually confined to the gallery space where it lies firmly in the controlling hands of primary dealers who set the baseline costs. For such a reason it has never found a comfortable place on the open market because of a reluctance to see work undervalued.

Then there is the nature of the buyers themselves. Generally older and perhaps more conservative in taste, secondary market patrons are not ones for the experimental fashions of artists with a little elasticity still left in their step. And lets be honest, who would want to look at a little replica of Ed Young’s bare-butt cheeks everyday?

But, despite this anomaly, Young’s “My Gallerist Made Me Do It” sold for R284k. Granted that this was just below the low estimate of R300k but still, such a chunk of change sets up a good market precedent for the artist going forward. Similarly Athi-Patra Ruga’s tapestry “Convention…Procession…Elevation” found a winning bid of R477k just below the high estimate of R500k signaling that the desire for his work is well foundered.


Likewise Diane Victors “Abomakgereza”, a charcoal drawing on paper fetched R193k well above the high estimate of  R120k. In terms of photography David Goldblatt came in above his highs of R120k, going under the hammer for R159k and R147k for his “Johannesburg from the Southwest” and A Cairn, possibly a grave, Leeuwenvalley, Moordenaar’s Karoo, Western Cape” respectively.


Lastly, the final word has to lie with Walter Battiss. Coming off the back of two shows at the WITS Art Museum and the Origins Center, the ebullient prankster is hot property which this sale attested to, presenting examples from multiple periods of his oeuvre. His two watercolours, Rensburgkop & Bosveld both found the way above the high estimates to fetch R96k and R85K respectively. Another significant highlight was his oil on canvas titled “Bathers” which, with a top estimate of R200k almost doubled that amount coming in at R375K.

What can one surmise from these results? A number of things. Perhaps it would be premature to suggest that the dawning days of the contemporary sale are here…some notable examples of established artists not listed here didn’t find homes. What can be surmised, if not speculated, is that with Aspire’s entry into the market we are seeing new collectors willing to jump into a sea of as of yet unchartered investment.

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