High-priced art sells online!


Art might not be considered an ‘essential’ item nor the industry in the context of a national and global pandemic and ‘lockdown’ yet the art auction market and sale of high-priced artworks has surprisingly continued. Ordinarily it would be cause for concern that few expensive artworks are exceeding the maximum estimates assigned by the auction house. However, in tough trading times such as these it has been comforting to observe that pricey works around the R10-million mark are still finding buyers.

This is partially due to the fact that auction houses have been cultivating online platforms for some time. Until recently, that is pre-Covid times, internet auctions were usually limited to lower priced, less valuable items. High-priced works were flogged in live settings, supported by cocktail parties and four-course dinner events. The prevailing thinking must have been that this was the only way to fluff the sort of buyers that would spend over R10-million on an artwork. Lockdowns and social distancing in South Africa and the UK, London – a vital hub for the resale of contemporary and modern African art – forced auction houses to conduct major sales online and the results have proved that not only is the market for art stable but so too is an appetite for artworks with high-price tags. And, without popping a single champagne cork.

In times of economic strife it might not be unexpected that the secondary market for art is so active, given some may be forced to sell their valuables in order to survive or soften the blow to their savings. Others may be wishing to invest in a market that is less volatile (than others) and acquire works by lauded artists for lesser sums.

It was the sale of Irma Stern’s Grape Packer at Sotheby’s March sale of Modern and Contemporary African Art in London that signalled that the art market had remained stable despite the world turning upside down, under lockdown. Under normal circumstances it would not have been much of a talking-point that this oil painting depicting a farm worker with a baby on her back, executed in 1959, fetched almost R9-million (£435,000). Stern’s paintings typically command high sums at auctions. Last year in a South African based sale at Strauss & Co in March Two Arabs (1939) fetched R20-million (including buyer’s premiums).


A week before the Sotheby’s March sale, Watussi Chief's Wife (1946), also by Stern, fetched R10-million (£447,000) at Bonhams in London. This sale was a live one at a very uncertain time: Covid-19 was spreading around the world and lockdown measures had not been taken. Buyers were worried about the outcome of the auction and a number of artworks were withdrawn from it. As such, while the aforementioned Stern sale was a good sign observers didn’t feel this auction reflected on the status of the art market, in the Covid-19 era that is.

The Sotheby’s London sale was intended to be a live one, before lockdown and physical distancing prevented this from occurring. It’s outcome was uncertain and art insiders waited anxiously for the results.


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