Auction Time #3

For a long time it has been hard to top Irma Stern in terms of the overall value that she has fetched at auction. Safe to say that there has been a bubble created around her work with her secondary market values exceeding those of her peers. But the thing about bubbles is that they invariably pop.


At this point in time it would be a far cry to say that Stern’s bubble has come anywhere close to popping. It would rather be fair to say that the secondary art market would indeed want nothing less; when a bubble pops uncertainty ripples and the chain of events can be devastating.

A way of mitigating such circumstances is to search for new avenues to invest in and inflate the value of, so drawing attention away from the fact that artists with long, well established track records are either unavailable or no longer finding the results they once did. In this way the market floats and all the bubbles stay on the surface with their glistening surface areas of confidence intact.

The Strauss & Co. Johannesburg sale on Monday last week saw the emergence of a not so new player on the auction circuit. A total of ten lots featured Alexis Preller whilst the grand dame of the secondary market, Stern accounted for only two.

This reason alone cannot account for what any sort of seismic shift in the market place. Consigners are often measured as to what they release and when and the abundance of Preller can be attributed to their source in significant collections of Liselotte and Walter Hardebeck and New York based Ruth and Jerome Siegel. In such a light the absence of Stern can be seen as a cooly measured response to her previous dominance of the market place.

The two highest lots of Preller was his “Adam” from the Siegel collection which sold for R6.8m coming in just above its low estimate and “Space Angel” selling for R6.5m going above its high estimate. But the real star of the Preller show was “Woman with Red Hair or Ophelia” which was estimated at between R200 – R300k and ended up going under the hammer for R2.7m, far above any expectations.


Stern’s “Woman with a Blue Headscarf” also featured in the top ten lots selling for R2.7m, towards the top end of the high estimate of R3m, whilst her charcoal  sketch titled “Watussi Chief’s Wife (with Head Dress)” fetched R852k also well above the high estimate of R300k.

Pierneef, another stable on the secondary market also featured with an unusual palette for the artist in his “Extensive Landscape in Pink, Orange and Rose” selling for R750k, above the high estimate of R350k.


On the contemporary front Norman Catherine featured in 18 lots with a mixture of paintings and sculptures made from wood and bronze. The results of these lots reveal that his bronzes all achieved prices over their high estimates with his wooden assemblage title “Middleman” going for R397k above the high of R350.

Disappointing was the performance of Jane Alexander’s “something’s going down” which was exhibited as part of the artist’s Standard Bank Young Artist Award show in 1995. Estimated at between R1.2m and R1.6m the lot went unsold, possibly due to the fact that the lot, which features four miniature figures atop a table is not consider a trophy work.


Again, it seems there is a rush on Walter Battiss. Featured on 24 lots with three going unsold (“Rock Art Composition I”, “Fook Book II” and a recto verso colour screenprint “The Strasse Der Grosse Freiheit, Hamburg, Girls Skipping)”, the market cant seem to get enough of Battiss, with the highest performing lot “Rock Art Composition II” going for R2m, in the middle of it’s estimate.

All told, this sale was not about the changing landscape as modern moves to contemporary and the willingness of buyers to absorb new tastes but rather about the way in which consigners are coming to the party with significant works of well known artists whose bubbles are bursting onto the scene.

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