A spire Art Auctions has been in business since 2016. This makes it technically still a start-up company, but this description doesn’t really fit an organisation that has hit the major milestones it has. With only six live auctions under its belt, Aspire has already achieved several world and South African sales records.
Its first sale, in October 2016, saw the highest price that year achieved for a work by Alexis Preller – R7 048 160 for his Profile Figures (Mirrored Image). A world record for a sculpture by Edoardo Villa followed in March 2017, when his Vertical Composition (1958) sold in Cape Town for R1 818 880. The momentum continued in Johannesburg in November 2017, when Aspire achieved another world record of R1 932 560 for a 1970 work by respected Amadlozi alumnus Sydney Kumalo, Mythological Rider. At the same sale, the top lot, Drawing from Mine (Soho with coffee plunger and cup) (1991) by contemporary doyen William Kentridge, sold for R5 456 640, a South African record for a drawing by the artist, and just shy of the world record price, fetched in Paris in 2016. These milestones are seen in the context that, since Aspire has exploded onto the SA auction scene, the secondary art market in the country has increased by 25%, indicating that the company is competing where it set out to be – at the very top end of the country’s art auction market.
Aspire began life in 2016 as a collaboration between some of the country’s most successful entrepreneurial businessmen, and some of its most experienced art industry experts. Those art experts continue to drive the strategy and operations of the company. Managing director and senior art specialist Ruarc Peffers, and fellow directors and senior art specialists Mary-Jane Darroll and Emma Bedford, between them boast some 80 years of hard-won experience and expertise in every part of the art industry, from private and public galleries in curatorial and art dealing capacities, to specialised portfolios in the biggest auction houses in the country. That level of experience means they know exactly how to differentiate Aspire.
“From the very beginning we had a vision for the company that was driven by top-line growth and bottom-line performance, but that also had a strong ethical and value-driven underpinning,” says Peffers. “What we believe makes us different is twofold: firstly by placing the best quality fine art at the centre of everything we do, and secondly by bringing diversity and inclusivity to all our dealings.”
Aspire puts much store by its expert focus on the different market segments – historic, modern and contemporary art. But the approach is focused and tailored. “The established parts of the market attract much competition for high quality works,” continues Peffers. “Artists like Irma Stern, JH Pierneef and Gerard Sekoto are on the international auction market radar, and we don’t take our eye off the prize of these top works. But our expertise and market focus has to extend beyond this. We believe strongly in our efforts to diversify by educating and growing new and potential buyers in the different segments. We view art, sustainability and the development of the industry as pillars of what we do. To those ends we have established our ARR initiative, pioneering it in South Africa.”
Aspire’s Artist’s Resale Rights (ARR) initiative is the only one of its kind in the country. The company undertakes, entirely at its own cost, to pay royalties to living South African artists whose work sells on its auctions. The royalty amounts are calculated on a sliding scale in line with best practice in established EU markets and the UK. Currently the South African government has legislation pending to cater for visual art royalties, but it has not been passed into law for some years.
“The impetus behind our ARR initiative is our firm belief in placing art, sustainability, and the development of the industry at our core,” says Peffers. “We are committed to the ongoing growth of the practitioners and the professionals that have made this market what it is today, and we believe that paying royalties to living artists can make a contribution to the sustainbility of art as a practice and a way of life in the country.
The fact that we fund these royalty payments ourselves, and administer their collection at our own cost, testifies to that commitment. We are ethical in all our dealings; and place integrity and transparency at the heart of our interactions with sellers, buyers, artists and all role players in our industry. It’s the only way we see ourselves, and our industry, developing and thriving,” Peffers concludes.