Looking for more pointers

Michael Coulson:


After a low-key start to the year, next week’s two sales by the biggest auctioneers of SA art  may give a better indication of how the market will perform this year. It may be significant that both houses have pitched their overall estimates lower than for the corresponding sales last year, though in the case of Bonhams this is offset by the weakness of the rand.

Nita (Pauline Augusta Wilhelmina) Spilhaus, Windswept Trees, 1878-1967 (Strauss & Co)

Strauss & Co kicks off with a five-session sale in Cape Town on Monday, of which the early and late evening sessions are devoted to art. As usual, the first of these is devoted to minor work: it includes 112 lots of SA art, with a total estimate range of about R2.5m-R3.5m, the top lot, a landscape by Nita Spilhaus, carrying an estimate of only R90 000-R120 000). There are 93 SA items in the evening, estimated at R19.1m-R27.5m, making a total of 205 lots estimated at R21.6m-R31.0m. This is much more modest than last year’s comparable range of R29.6m-R42.2m. The total estimate range for all five sessions, by the way, is R30.2m-R42.6m, showing the extent to which Strauss is diversifying into furniture, decorative arts and jewellery.

The top 10 estimates include three seven-digit items and go all the way down to low estimates starting at R300 000. They include only two Irma Sterns: the cover, Dakar Woman, estimated at R6m-R9m, and a drawing, Arab Man, Dakar, at R300 000-R400 000.  There are three Alexis Prellers: Red Angel (R2.5m-R3.5m, the back cover), African Profile (R500 000-R800 000, inside back cover) and Abstract Janus (R400 000-R600 000). A Maggie  Laubscher harvest scene, the inside front cover, is R1.2m-R1.6m. The list is completed by two lots on R500 000-R700 000, a Stanley Pinker nude, Love (the frontispiece) and Wolf Kibel’s Motherhood, Pieter Wenning’s An Eating House (R300 000-R500 000, frontispiece to evening session) and a Gwelo Goodman landscape (R300 000-R400 000).

Also featured is a Piet van Heerden landscape (frontispiece to early session, R40 000-R60 000).

Gregoire Boonzaaier is the most represented artist, with no fewer than 15 lots, followed by Van Heerden (8), David Botha, Frans Claerhout, Goodman, Naude and Stern (six each) and Walter Battiss, Terence McCaw, Pinker and Joe Wolpe (better known as a leading Cape gallerist over many decades) five each.

The sale by Bonhams in London on Wednesday offers some interesting contrasts. At UK£4.5m-UK£6.5m, the dip in gross estimate from last year’s UK£4.8m-UK£7m is less marked, even more so considering the exchange rate was then R14.12. And with 11 Sterns, eight Gerard Sekotos and Pierneefs, seven Tretchikoffs, six Prellers and five William Kentridges, it’s a very different mix of artists.

The low estimates of the top 10 range upwards from UK£100 000, or about R1.8m, and no fewer than seven of them are Sterns, plus two Pierneefs  and a Preller. Top estimate by a huge margin is UK£1m-UK£1.5m for her Zanzibar Woman, the frontispiece; on UK£300 000-UK£500 000 are another portrait, a Zanzibar scene and a still life; on UK£200 000-UK£300 000 a Congo woman and another still life; and on UK£120 000-UK£180 000 an Amalfi landscape. 

Preller’s Fishermen of Beau Vallon (UK£150 000-UK£200 000) is on the cover, while the two Pierneefs are at UK£120 000-UK£180 000 and UK£100 000-UK£150 000. The inside front cover spread is George Pemba’s Bisho Massacre Funeral, commemorating a 1992 tragedy, and the inside back cover spread Kentridge’s charcoal/pastel drawing Man at Switchboard (UK£60 000-UK£90 000). The back cover is Neville Lewis’s Peach Pickers, Franschhoek (UK£50 000-UK£80 000).