Strauss success still leaves market uncertain

SA Art Times | Michael Coulson

While Strauss & Co’s June auction in Joburg was reasonably successful, it still left the total turnover of the leading sa houses in the first half of the year at well below last year’s levels. Judged on its own, though, a gross 2% over the low estimate would be welcomed by any auction house.

For once, the sale was restricted to art, albeit with a smattering of international lots in both sessions. The day sale of minor work included 149 lots of SA art, of which 106 (71.1%) sold, for about R4.55m, against the estimate of R4.21m, while of the evening session of 104 lots 79 (76.0%) sold for R29.62m (estimate R29.29m). Overall, thus, 185 of 253 lots sold (73.1%) for R34.16m, 102% of the lo estimate of R43.5m.

The difference between the percentage sold and the gross in relation to estimate suggests that while the market may be getting more selective, what are seen as quality works remain in demand. Significantly, while only two of the top 10 estimates didn’t sell, the failures included the top estimate, an Irma Stern still life, the other being a Gerard Sekoto portrait of a young woman.

Top price achieved (hammer plus charged) was R2.96m for an Alexis Preller still life (estimate R2.6m-R3.2m — hammer price only — the front cover lot), followed by R2.73m for Stanley Pinker’s Camping in the Kouebokkeveld (est R2m-R3m). Of the top 11 estimates, next came another Preller, Ndebele Village, at R2.39m (est R2m-R3m, the inside back cover). On R1.82m was a Pierneef landscape (R900 000-R1.2m, inside front cover), R1.59m a Stern Mother & Child (R1.5m-R2m), R1.25m Walter Battiss’s Medley (R500 000-R800 000, opposite the title page), R1.02m a William Kentridge drawing (R750 000-R1m, the back cover), R739 000 Robert Hodgins’ Don Giovanni in Hell (R650 000-R900 000) and R591 000 yet another Preller, Grand Mapogga (R500 000-R800 000).

Also on R739 000 were two lots outside the top 10 estimates, Anton van Wouw’s bronze Skapu Player (est R600 000-R900 000) and Maurice van Essche’s Harlequin (R400 000-R600 000), while some of the international art went well. In the evening session, British artist Ivon Hitchens’ Long Boat fetched R1.08m (R500 000-R700 000), and the best prices in the day session as well as the highest premiums to estimate of the whole sale, were two Chagall colour lithographs estimated at R30 000-R50 000, which were amazingly bid up to R205 000 and R193 000.

With individual sales taking less than their 2013 equivalents, and in spite of there being one more sale this year, as Stephan Welz & Co is increasing its frequency, the two main local houses’ first-half sales took R85.1m, against R107.8m last year. With Bonhams in London taking the equivalent of R49.5m (R63.5m), the total of R134.6m is 21.4% less than last year’s R171.3m. A shortfall of this size is unlikely to be made up by year-end; it remains to be seen, though, whether the Citadel art index will show any correlation between levels of activity and price levels.