The hubbub of a working harbour provided the backdrop for Strauss & Co’s inaugural contemporary art sale, the first such auction in South Africa to focus exclusively on this burgeoning category of art.

Held in a stylishly transformed warehouse adjacent to Duncan Dock in the Port of Cape Town, the hour-long sale comprised 71 lots representing three generations of contemporary artists and generated total sales of R13.551 million, with a sell-through rate of 80%.

As circumstances would have it, the specialist sale coincided with the auspicious arrival of the RMS St Helena, one of only four surviving Royal Mail Ships in the world. The ship had received a celebratory send-off when it departed from the South Atlantic Ocean island of St Helena earlier in February as it embarked on its final working voyage to Cape Town, having served the island for 27 years.

The successful sale affirmed the reputation at auction of senior artists like Robert Hodgins, William Kentridge, Karel Nel and Penny Siopis, but also – and importantly in the context of this new sale – uncovered collector appetite for works by a younger generation of artists, notably painters.

This enthusiasm was registered early on when rival bidders vied for Lisa Brice’s gesso work depicting lovers kissing, Untitled (2006). This formative work was knocked down for R250 096, more than double the high estimate.

The following lot, Kiss, Kiss (2013), a striking oil work by Georgina Gratrix, was also the subject of intense competitive bidding and eventually sold for R318 304, more than double the high estimate.

In the lead-up to knocking down Gratrix’s work against the background clangour, auctioneer Bina Genovese remarked: “I am sorry about the noise, but we are after all in the docks.”

Cape Town painter Jake Aikman’s Adrift II (2014), a mesmerising canvas with an oceanic theme, had seven telephone bidders competing but was eventually secured by a commission bidder for R250 096, trebling the high estimate.

Similarly, multiple telephone bidders initially chased after Mongezi Ncaphayi’s ink and mixed-media diptych, Treasure Hunt (2017), which eventually sold for R193 256, trebling the high estimate.

Bidding at the auction was robust from the outset, with works by Zander Blom and David Koloane early on selling for above their high estimates.

The top lot at Strauss & Co’s contemporary sale was a charcoal drawing from William Kentridge’s stop-animation film, Felix in Exile (1994), which fetched R2 273 600, within its estimate.

A generation older than both Kentridge and Koloane, late-career bloomer Robert Hodgins performed reliably well too. Drunk in the Docks (1996-97) is an autobiographical painting evoking London-born Hodgins’s arrival at Cape Town’s harbour in 1938. It sold for R1 250 480 and was the evening sale’s second highest lot by value.

Hodgins, whose arresting Stones in a Pink Field (2000) sold for R852 600, is part of an influential generation of artist-teachers associated with the art school at the University of the Witwatersrand. Strauss & Co’s sale also included important pieces by former Wits faculty like Karel Nel, Walter Oltmann and Penny Siopis.

Nel posted the third biggest individual result when Schism I (1993), a pastel and sprayed pigment drawing of foliage and studio objects, sold for R1 023 120, well above its high estimate. Reflecting its status as a classic example of Siopis’s breakthrough “Cake paintings” series, Cake (1982) sold for R852 600, achieving the fifth biggest sale price. Oltmann’s brass wire sculpture, Locust (2004), sold for R193 256, also well above its high estimate.

While painting and drawing dominated the list for top individual works sold, photography – a medium closely associated with new forms of post-apartheid artistic expression – also performed well. Befitting his reputation, David Goldblatt secured two extraordinary results. On that very evening he was being honoured with a dinner to mark the opening of his survey exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Goldblatt’s landscape scene, The Road to Nqondwana, Transkei (2007), sold for R329 672. An earlier lot titled Saturday Morning at the Hypermarket: Semi-final of the Miss Lovely Legs Competition, Boksburg (1980) sold for R295 568, above its high estimate.

Two generations younger than Goldblatt, twin brothers Hasan and Husain Essop’s elegant architectural photograph from 2011 of the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, sold for R62 524, also above the high estimate.

Although strongly focussed on South African art, Strauss & Co’s contemporary sale included a selection of art from the African continent. Kenyan artist Cyrus Kabiru is best known for his hand-made sculptural eyepieces, an example of which was on offer with a photographic portrait. The pairing of Kabiru’s sculpture and photo fetched R204 624, above the high estimate.

Introduced with a view to expanding Strauss & Co’s offering in a maturing art market, the specialist contemporary sale established new auction records and benchmark prices for artists Jake Aikman, Patrick Bongoy, Jan-Henri Booyens, Wim Botha, Joni Brenner, Lisa Brice, Hasan & Husain Essop, Claire Gavronsky, Georgina Gratrix, David Goldblatt, Cyrus Kabiru, Mongezi Ncaphayi, Karel Nel, Walter Oltman, Guy Tillim and Diane Victor.

Twenty per cent of the net proceeds from the inaugural contemporary sale have been earmarked for the Strauss & Co Bursary Fund, an initiative aimed at providing bursaries for post-graduate art and art history study at major South African universities. The next contemporary sale will be held in February 2019 and will once again, coincide with the Investec Cape Town Art Fair.

Artwork: William  Kentridge, South African, Drawing for Felix in Exile, signed, charcoal and pastel on paper, 118 by 148cm – SOLD R 2 273 600

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