Preller, Kentridge and Tretchikoff top Strauss & Co’s Johannesburg sale

From left to right: 

Lot 274: Alexis Preller, Head (Adapting Itself to the Unendurable). Sold R 7 055 600

Lot 310: Vladimir Tretchikoff, Witch Doctor. Sold R 2 276 000

Lot 288: Alexis Preller, Poseidon. Sold R 3 414 000

Lot 307: William Kentridge, Deep Pool, from the series Colonial Landscape. Sold R 3 414 000

Alexis Preller was the star artist at Strauss & Co’s top-notch winter sale, generating R15.53 million in sales from seven lots sold on Monday, 4 June 2018 at the Wanderers Club in Johannesburg. Cementing his stature at auction, Preller posted three of the top five auction results at this live sale, the climax to an energetic programme of art events hosted by the company.

The auction generated overall sales of R56 milion with a sell-through rate of 74%. The result was the eighth highest combined result for a live sale since Strauss & Co launched in 2009 and is a remarkable feat in a challenging economy.

The top lot was a mesmerizing oil from Preller’s celebrated Seychelles period, Head (Adapting Itself to the Unendurable) from 1949, which sold for R7 055 600. A museum-quality drawing by William Kentridge, Deep Pool (1996), from his series Colonial Landscapes, was the sale’s second biggest lot and the top earner in the contemporary art category, selling for R3 414 00.

The balance of the top five lots were made up by Preller’s intaglio Poseidon (1970), a unique depiction of the mythical Greek god of the sea executed in the artist’s sculptural late-career painting style, which sold for R3 414 000, and Preller’s Contrapuntal Figures II (1964), an abstract work in delicate lilacs, warm yellows and cobalt blues, that fetched R2 731 200. The fifth biggest earner was a vivid portrait of a traditional healer holding a green snake by Vladimir Tretchikoff, which sold for R2 276 000.

Enthusiastic bidding for Kumalo’s bronze Figure on a Bull, culminated in a sale price of R1 081 100, well above the R600 000 high estimate and Peter Clarke’s striking oil Goatherd, achieved R796 600, another solid result for this underrated artist. A mysterious late-career oil by Walter Battiss, People Who Live Under Tables (1982), sold for R1 024 200.

In the lead up to the sale, Strauss & Co hosted a vibrant programme of events that included artists’ talks, lectures, walkabouts and dedicated children’s programme devised by Strauss & Co specialist Wilhelm van Rensburg. The Wanderers Club’s ballroom was reconfigured into a pop-up museum with interactive audio guides and there was even a special performance by Joburg Ballet.

“We want to broaden the audience for art and open up the auction process to new buyers,” said Susie Goodman, an executive director of Strauss & Co, Johannesburg. “Our efforts definitely paid dividends. We welcomed more than 1500 visitors to our preview weekend and saw a large number of new bidders vying for works at our sale, particularly in our specialist sale focussing on abstract art.”

Strauss & Co’s catalogue included two lightly curated sections drawing collector attention to fine examples of abstract and contemporary art. 

Artists representative of all the major styles and schools associated with the post-war uptake of abstraction in South Africa were represented in the sale. Standout performers included Sidney Goldblatt, whose oil Boats, Spain I (1957) surpassed its estimate threefold, selling for R170 700. Hannatjie van der Wat, a student of Goldblatt and mother of fashion designer Marianne Fassler, saw her peak-period abstract Gateway (1967) sell above its high estimate for R125 180. Joburg Ballet delighted audiences with interpretive dances based on these two artists’ works.

The sale confirmed the status of auction regulars like Douglas Portway and Sam Nhlengethwa, both of whom posted positive results. Nhlengethwa’s large-scale Thupelo workshop period abstract composition, Image IV (1990), sold for R227 600, and Douglas Portway’s London 62 (1961), a post-emigration oil work dominated by remnants of his African colour scheme, sold above estimate for R238 980.

New names at auction, like Henry Davies, Wilfred Delporte and Anton Uys, also yielded solid results. Davies, who taught artists Peter Schütz and Keith Alexander, had two carved wooden sculptures on offer: Pig’s Head I sold within its estimate for R25 036, while Lithops surpassed its estimate, achieving R22 760. Delporte’s steel sculpture Flight Form (1969) sold for R34 140. Exhibited in London shortly after it was made, Uys’s attractive geometric abstraction Metaphysical Boxes III (1975) also went above its high estimate, netting R79 660.

“It’s all about building the market,” said Frank Kilbourn, Strauss & Co’s executive chairperson, who was greatly encouraged by the increasing audience for new and unheralded artists at auction. “A significant number of recently introduced artists have started to perform very well at auction.” Kilbourn credited Strauss & Co-sponsored initiatives like the August Art Month at Welgemeend, which last year focussed on South African abstract art from the 1950s to the 1970s, as creating renewed interest in forgotten artists of that period. 

Strauss & Co’s market activism has also been focussed on the contemporary art market. In February the company launched its inaugural contemporary art sale in Cape Town, with young Cape Town painter Jake Aikman emerging as a star performer. Aikman’s brilliant form at auction continued in Johannesburg with his enigmatic seascape in shades of grey and green, Beneath, R341 400, doubling the pre-sale estimate and establishing a new world record for the artist.

Other notable sales in the contemporary category included Willem Boshoff’s sand and wood assemblage Land Grab (2012), which sold for R170 700, and Joachim Schönfeldt’s Soweto landscape on a specially carved kiaat frame, Oppenheimer Tower & Surrounds, Jabavu, Soweto (2010), which fetched R79 660. Both artists surpassed their high estimates. Nelson Makamo also posted solid results, his 2015 Portrait of a Girl selling for R159 320, and Dylan Lewis’s bronze edition Stalking Cheetah II, came in above estimate at R546 240.

Auction market bellwethers like Walter Battiss, Peter Clarke, Robert Hodgins, Sydney Kumalo, Maggie Laubser, JH Pierneef and Irma Stern all delivered solid returns. The first lot of the sale, a gorgeous tonally muted watercolour by JH Pierneef handled by specialist Alastair Meredith, sold within estimate for R91 040, setting the tone for the sale. 

The next Johannesburg sale will be on Monday, 12 November 2018. It will include a curated section titled Neglected Tradition that will draw collector attention to the depth and breadth of South African art from the twentieth century.