Big gains and a sad loss for Strauss & Co in 2015

A month before he passed away on 25 December 2015, distinguished art expert and auctioneer Stephan Welz presided over yet another successful sale at Strauss & Co when, on 9 November, he knocked down painter Alexis Preller’s oil and gesso work The Creation of Adam I (1968) for R8.5 million in Johannesburg. The extraordinary sale result established a new South African record for this enigmatic painter.

Welz presided over numerous records, including the 1981 sale of an Anton van Wouw bronze portraying a solitary black mineworker with pneumatic rock drill for R80,000, at the time a national record. But 2015 was in many ways a very special year for Welz and the company he cofounded in 2009 with a consortium of business leaders and industry experts, including Elisabeth Bradley, Conrad Strauss, Vanessa Phillips, Ann Palmer and Bina Genovese.

For the first time in the company’s history its turnover surpassed R200 million – a sum unrivalled by any auction house dealing in South African art in a single year. The impressive turnover reflected a 16.83% growth in sales over the previous year. The company’s robust year-on-year sales have catapulted it to a leading position in the local art auction business, a claim corroborated by research undertaken by Professor Johannes W. Fedderke, a prominent South African economist.

The company has the highest market share amongst the three leading auction houses specialising in South African art globally. The quality, depth and diversity of its offerings saw Strauss & Co establish 21 new artist records in 2015, the highest ever achieved by the company in a single year.

Alongside Preller, another 2015 highlight was the November sale of a rare 1911 bronze sculpture by Van Wouw entitled Miner with Hand Drill (1911). Two years ago Strauss & Co sold an edition of this coveted work, cast at the Massa foundry in Rome, for R2 million. In November, Welz knocked down the Utrecht-born master’s tour de force in realism for R4.77 million.

Sculpture was also central to one of the year’s biggest surprises. In 1938, Ernest Mancoba left South Africa for Paris where he pursued abstract painting. Mancoba was however trained as a sculptor. In June, Strauss & Co sold a rare Mancoba woodcarving portraying a figure playing a skapu for R613,872. It was the first ever Mancoba sculpture offered at auction in South Africa.

“The results for 2015 confirm the strength of the South African art market,” commented Welz on the vigorous gains posted by Strauss & Co in his valediction year. “There is an undeniable appetite for high quality art that represents the best examples of an artist’s work.”

These bullish sentiments were already discernable at the company’s March sale in Cape Town. “You’re halfway to heaven,” quipped Welz to a bidder shortly before knocking down Ed Young’s super-realist prosthetic sculpture portraying retired Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu, Arch (2010), for R852,600.

While sculpture often captured the headlines, it was painting that underpinned the company’s solid performance again in 2015. At the same March sale Welz’s gavel registered another world record when J’accuse (1995), a portrait of Captain Alfred Dreyfus by painter Robert Hodgins, sold for R2.5 million. Later in the year another military-themed painting by Hodgins, Clubmen of America: Academy Cadets (2002), sold for R1.59 million, doubling its pre-sale estimate.

Alongside Hodgins, a host of other painters posted solid gains at auction in 2015. They included expressionist painter Wolf Kibel, whose late-1930s portrait of his son, Joseph, achieved R2.95 million. Erik Laubscher also performed well, his Women Arranging Flowers (1951), painted shortly before the artist returned to Cape Town from Paris, selling for just over R2 million, a record for the artist.

A year after the successful sale of the Harry Lits Collection by Strauss & Co in 2014, works associated with art dealer Egon Guenther’s feted Amadlozi Group continue to attract bidders – and set records. Cecily Sash’s Target Composition I (1974), a semi-abstract painting by this founding member of the Amadlozi, achieved R511,560, a record for the artist. A 1982 wood sculpture depicting a traditional healer by Lucas Sithole, a star pupil of Cecil Skotnes and Sydney Kumalo, achieved R545,664, surpassing its pre-sale high estimate.

Despite intensifying economic headwinds in 2015 and devaluation of the rand, Strauss & Co posted consistently strong sales across all the major categories in which it trades. An important Régence ormolumounted rosewood commode once housed at Vergelegen Estate sold for R2.5 million, besting its pre-sale estimate by a considerable sum.

Interest in contemporary art, which in 2013 saw Strauss & Co sell an untitled student work by Jane Alexander from 1986 for a record price of R5.45 million, continued. The company in 2015 established reliable benchmark prices for a number of living artists, including mixed-media artists Norman Catherine and Athi-Patra Ruga, as well as young painters Zander Blom and Georgina Gratrix.

The unexpected passing of Welz at the end of 2015 leavened the tone of celebration and triumph that concluded Strauss & Co’s 2015 sale season.

“Stephan will be deeply mourned by all of us,” commented Elizabeth Bradley in her chairman’s report. “His foresight in creating a legacy of unparalleled experience, a repository of priceless knowledge and a unique cultural ethos will ensure that his successors will be inspired and equipped to continue to drive the company onwards and upwards.”

Vanessa Phillips and Bina Genovese succeed Welz as the company’s joint managing directors. A specialist in furniture, silver, ceramics, glass and jewellery, Phillips worked alongside Welz for three decades, as did Genovese, who also holds important international experience from her time at Christie’s in Italy. Genovese fulfils auctioneering, marketing and business administration functions at the company.

They are assisted by leading experts, including director emeritus Ann Palmer and senior specialist Emma Bedford, formerly a senior curator and head of art collections at the Iziko South African National Gallery and director of Goodman Gallery, Cape Town. Welz, who was mentored by art dealer Reinhold Cassirer, recognised the importance of professional lineages. He shared of his immense skills and insights with a new generation of young specialists at Strauss & Co, including Jacqui Carney and Alastair Meredith in Johannesburg, and Kirsty Rich and Alex Richards in Cape Town.

Every year Strauss & Co hosts four live auctions, two apiece in Cape Town and Johannesburg, as well as four online auctions. Strauss & Co will kick-start its 2016 sales programme with an auction at the Vineyard Hotel, Newlands, on 14 March, followed by its first Johannesburg sale on 23 May. Lot consignments are carefully considered before acceptance, ensuring a distilled selection of the exemplary works for sale.

Highlights from the forthcoming Cape Town sale include a vivid Hodgins canvas titled Bad Man with Great Threads (estimate R700,000-R900,000) and an important early Walter Battiss, Red Rock (estimate R600,000-R900,000). Strauss & Co, which is distinguished by its competitive commission rates, currently holds the world auction record for Hodgins and Battiss (African Figures, 1950, sold in 2012 for R2.56 million).

A record price is an important yardstick in the auction business and since its inception in 2009 Strauss & Co has set numerous benchmark prices, notably for William Kentridge, JH Pierneef, Gerard Sekoto and Irma Stern. It holds records for many treasured South African artists, including Jane Alexander, Wim Botha, Gwelo Goodman, Sydney Kumalo, Frans Oerder, Lucas Sithole and Cecil Skotnes. The emergence of contemporary art as a strong sub-category in its offering bodes well for Strauss & Co, especially as it sets out to consolidate its already-impressive gains in 2016.

Image: Strauss & Co. art expert and auctioneer Stephan Welz