Sale of high-end artworks continues despite lockdown

Art might not be considered an “essential” item in the context of a global pandemic and lockdown. Yet the art auction market and sale of high-priced artworks has, surprisingly, continued.

Ordinarily it would be cause for concern that few expensive artworks are exceeding the maximum estimates assigned by the auction house. But in tough trading times such as these, it has been comforting to note that works around the R10m mark are still finding buyers.

This is partially due to the fact that auction houses have been cultivating online platforms for some time. In pre-Covid times, internet auctions were usually limited to lower-priced, less valuable items.

High-priced works were flogged in live settings, supported by cocktail parties and four-course dinner events. The thinking must have been that this was the only way to attract buyers who’d be inclined to spend more than R10m on an artwork.

Lockdowns and social distancing in SA and in the UK — with London being a vital hub for the resale of contemporary and modern African art — forced auction houses to conduct major sales online.

The results have proved that not only is the market stable, but so is an appetite for artworks with high price tags — and without popping a single champagne cork.

It was the sale of Irma Stern’s Grape Packer at Sotheby’s March sale of Modern and Contemporary African Art in London that signalled that the market had remained stable, despite the world turning upside down, under lockdown.

Ordinarily it would not have been much of a talking point that this 1959 oil painting, depicting a farm worker with a baby on her back, fetched almost R9m (£435,000).

Stern’s paintings typically command high sums at auctions. In March 2019, at an SA-based sale at Strauss & Co, her Two Arabs (1939) fetched R20m (including buyer’s premiums).

A week before the Sotheby’s March sale Watussi Chief’s Wife (1946), also by Stern, fetched R10m (£447,000) at Bonhams in London. This sale was a live one at a very uncertain time: Covid-19 was spreading around the world and lockdown measures had not yet been taken.

Buyers were worried about the outcome of the auction and a number of artworks were withdrawn. While the Stern sale was a good sign, art observers didn’t feel this auction reflected the status of the market in the Covid-19 era.

The Sotheby’s London sale was intended to be a live one, before lockdown and physical distancing prevented this. Its outcome was uncertain and art insiders waited anxiously for the results.

Usually there would have been disappointment that the results rarely exceeded the high estimates set for them.

Stern’s Grape Packer was expected to have fetched up to £550,000 (around R12m) instead of the R9m it attracted. The figures fetched in this Sotheby’s auction also appeared meatier to us in SA, given our currency’s decline in relation to the pound.

If the auctions had taken place a month or so earlier the R9m Stern would have been an R8.2m one (at R19 to the pound).

Art trading, like many activities, has gravitated towards online platforms. Many dealers and gallerists are trying to engage more online with their collectors.

Research until now has suggested that the internet-based art economy is not as fast moving as the live one. Only 5% of total gallery sales were made online in 2019, according to the UBS Art Basel Art Market 2020 report.

But with live events on hold for the foreseeable future, art organisers have chosen to stage virtual fairs.

The focus is now on achieving sales, not breaking previous records.

*Corrigall is an art consultant and author of the SA Art Market: Pricing & Patterns

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