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Art sales in Cape Town during the fair

Image by Nina Lieska

To say that Cape Town was in the grip of an art frenzy last weekend was an understatement. The opening of the inaugural Stellenbosch Triennale was quickly followed by the opening of the Investec Cape Town art fair. There were over 100 stands to peruse at that annual event and then gallery exhibitions to see in Woodstock, at the Norval, the Michael Armitage, the new Abdoulaye Konate at Zeitz Mocaa and a curated show, Matereality (sic), at the Iziko SA National Art Gallery. Adding to this art commerce bonanza were two auctions – the Aspire/Piasa Historical, Modern and Contemporary African sale on the Friday afternoon and the Strauss & Co Contemporary Art sale on the Saturday evening. All of this activity pitted the primary and secondary markets against each other, testing the buying power in this city and allowing for their influence on each other to be cleanly observed.

Given the tough economic conditions in South Africa – high unemployment, under 1% growth rate, huge government debt, unreliable electricity supply and a slump in the property market - local gallerists and auctioneers were feeling slightly apprehensive about whether art would find buyers.

As anticipated a number of different pictures emerged with different collector patterns in the primary and secondary markets, which reveal the current state of South Africa's art market but also the role the Investec Cape Town Art Fair has played in advancing it. Our upcoming report – Cape Town Art Market 2020 – will reveal the patterns we detected via quantitative and qualitative methods. To request a preview copy click here.

Visitor numbers at the fair were up – there were 22 000 visitors, according to Fiera Milano, the organisers. Over 2800 collectors jet-setted into Cape Town for it, said Frank Kilbourne, from Strauss & Co. You could feel the swell in numbers, there was never really a lull, the crowds kept filtering into the Cape Town International Conference Centre. The presence of so many international galleries, seemed to encourage more international visitors. Inclement weather on the Sunday appeared to induce locals to swap a nature walk for a stroll through the fair. So, in essence, there was no shortage of eyes... but were they browsing or buying?

South African dealers reported very healthy sales - Goodman Gallery said they sold out 50% of their offerings on the VIP opening of the art fair. However, as always at fairs, gallery sales were uneven. Some galleries from other parts of Africa and elsewhere did not do well; they claimed that European collectors either wanted South African art or art from galleries in Europe that they are already familiar with.

It was a no frills art fair with its canteen quality food and coffee and there were no exciting immersive or special art projects pushing the boundaries or entreating artists or collectors to think beyond possibilities for domestic wall space. Perhaps this was due to the fact that the museums and private art foundations in the city were providing this. So where once South African art fairs had to try and fill the gaps that museums and biennales had left unaddressed, now they can honestly claim their intended function; or should organisers continue to deliver on more than a trade fair?

Here are some of the works (a more comprehensive list will be included in our upcoming report) that were almost instantly snapped up before the masses poured in by the Saturday.

Islet of Eyelids (2020) by Marlene Hettie at Smac Gallery

For Dear Life (2020) by Penny Siopis at Stevenson Gallery

A Summer in India (2017) by Ghada Amer at Goodman Gallery

Runaway (2019) by Tom Cullburg at Barnard Gallery

ABOVE LEFT: Untitled series (2020) by Onyis Martin at Circle Art Gallery and ABOVE RIGHT: Detail of After Prince (2020) by Andy Robert at Hannah Hoffman.

Untitled (2020) by Eddy Kamuanga at October Gallery not unexpectedly also flew off the walls.

Afropop portraiture, trended at this art fair, and Art X Lagos last year, falling in line with the ways in which 'black portraiture' is finding traction elsewhere, especially in the US, where Kehinde Wiley and Kerry James Marshall have been prized by that market. The aesthetic trends defining the Cape Town Art Market during art fair time will feature in our upcoming report.

In contrast to some of the healthy sales at the fair, a less rosy picture emerged on the secondary market. Perhaps because of the focus on contemporary art, historical works by Pierneef, Battiss and Stern went unsold at the Aspire & Piasa sale. However, a surprising number of works by artists who were expected to sell - Moshekwa Langa, Zander Blom - went without a bid - and others who have been hot at auction and on the primary art market such as Mongezi Ncaphayi fetched the low estimate. Of course, it is always about the quality of the works and whether they are good examples. Many sales were only closed after the auction - was the timing (a Friday afternoon) off? Characteristically, despite some of the losses or passed lots at Aspire & Piasa's auction, a number of works - by Kentridge and obviously the Marlene Dumas - fetched more than a R1million.

Was there simply too much art competing for the attention of a small group of collectors? Or is the market for contemporary art softening, with local collectors less willing to spend more than R1million on a work. Certainly, at the Strauss & Co sale on the Saturday evening a price barrier seemed to be in play and some of the top lots – such as works by Nicholas Hlobo and Athi-Patra Ruga (whose photographic work, The Night of the Long Knives, during last year’s sale attracted a record R1,7million) fetched much lower sums than expected. Works by William Kentridge and Karel Nel, who typically do well at auction went unsold, while young artists doing well on the gallery and art fair circuit such as Cinga Sampson and Ruby Swinney fetched good records for their works - but they were under the R500 000 barrier. The Sampson work was 'ho-hum' yet fetched R238 000. Naturally, since being represented by the powerful Perrotin gallery brand Sampson's works walked off the art fair floor.

What is the impact of the juxtaposition of the secondary and primary markets in the space of four days? Which artists are doing well in both, or only in one market? What accounts for the differences between the two during this time of heightened art commerce in Cape Town? Is the market for contemporary art softening in one area but not the other? What pricing and buying patterns defined the auctions and the fair and what do they tell us about the status of this market and who is buying art?

These questions and more will be addressed in the Cape Town Art Market 2020 report. Request a preview copy when it is out in April.

The highest sums fetched at auctions during Cape Town art fair weekend:

1) Marlene Dumas’s Oktober 1973 fetched R7m (including buyers premium) at Aspire & Piasa Art Auction

2) William Kentridge, Whilst Reaching Down (Slowly) (2013) fetched: R2,5m (this work and the film it relates too is showing at the Zeitz Moccaa) at Aspire & Piasa Art Auction

3) John Meyer, Edge of the Hexrivierberge, (2007) fetched R1 ,1m

4) Andy Warhol’s Grevy’s Zebra (1983) fetched R1m at Aspire at Aspire & Piasa Art Auction

5) Athi Patra Ruga’s Touched by an Angel fetched R796 600( incl Buyer's Premium) at Strauss & Co

6) Robert Hodgins, Totems in a Desert fetched R739,700 (including premium) at Aspire & Piasa Art Auction

7) Norman Catherine’s Negotiator (1990) fetched R 512 100 (incl Buyer's Premium) at Strauss & Co



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