Hannah O’Leary, head of South African art at international auction house Bonhams. Picture: Supplied
Hannah O’Leary, head of South African art at international auction house Bonhams. Picture: Supplied

MORE "nonSouth Africans" are investing in South African art, widening the market for works by SA’s top artists, the head of South African art at Bonhams, Hannah O’Leary, says.

O’Leary has watched prices rise for South African art over the past decade, she said on Friday.

London-based auction house Bonhams has delivered record prices for South African art, and holds the record for eight of the top 10 art prices for work sold in the last nine years. All of these were works by Irma Stern.

"With sales exceeding $18m in 2011 Bonhams is the global market leader in South African Art, Bonhams says on its website.

"Stern is a world-class artist," says O’Leary. "Her work can stand up against any German expressionist."

The increasing interest in South African art mirrors piqued interest in art from other emerging markets, such as Russia and China, O’Leary says.

O’Leary is in SA to value art ahead of Bonhams’ second sale of South African art this year. There are two dedicated sales of South African art coming up — one in March (with a catalogue already online) and one in September.

She says the interest in South African art emanates primarily from South African expatriates across the globe. "We have lots of collectors overseas, many of them with deep pockets. Lots of them are South Africans who have become true captains of industry in London and New York and Zurich."

It was the sale in 2006 of a self-portrait by Gerard Sekoto for a record £117,600 (approximately R1.38m at the time) — 10 times the initial estimate of up to £18,000, that was "a wake-up call for Bonhams.

"We thought then that there may be something in South African art," says O’Leary.

Once South African art was exposed internationally it took off, extending the long history of domestic collection.

Last year, O’Leary made an unusual discovery — Stern’s 1939 painting "Arab in Black", being used as to prop up "letters and things" at the entrance to the kitchen of a London home. The painting had wonderful provenance — it was donated by collector Betty Suzman, the sister-in-law of anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman, for auction to raise funds for Nelson Mandela and others on trial for treason.

O’Leary says that kind of experience is not as rare as might be thought. "It is and it isn’t (rare)," she says. "When it happens it’s wonderful, but most people know what they have."

She tells of a man who found a Stern painting in his attic, and who still has no idea how it got there; and a Swiss farmer who phoned up Bonhams to tell O’Leary he had a painting that looked like "the one in your advertisement", and was also found to have a work by Stern.

"This job has definitely taken me to bizarre places... Down dirt roads in New Zealand, through 2m of snow in Canada. I do love that aspect of the job."

O’Leary says the contemporary art world is excited about the opening of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa at Cape Town’s Victoria & Alfred Waterfront later this year.

German businessman and collector Jochen Zeitz holds what is considered by many to be the leading collection of contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora.

He is committing his collection in perpetuity, underwriting the running costs of the museum and providing a substantial acquisition budget to allow the museum to acquire new important artworks over time to remain on the edge of contemporary cultural production, according to his Zietz Foundation.

At the moment African art and design are on display in Spain’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao until February 21, says O’Leary. "Making Africa" then moves to the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona from March 22 to July 31.

The exhibition acknowledges the vast array of contemporary art and design emanating from Africa.

While the contemporary art scene is busy and vibrant, also in SA, Bonhams deals in artists who have made a name for themselves. There are the sales of South African work coming in March and September. There is also sale in modern African art coming in May, with a focus on West African art and, in October a sale of contemporary (21st century) art, says O’Leary.

South African artists to look out for include William Kentridge, Stern, Sekoto, George Pemba and Lucas Sithole — "there is a lot of traction to come in early black artists". Others include Robert Hodgins, Walter Batiss, Stanley Pinker and Alexis Preller.

"But, you know, if you have work by an artist that did well and it’s not doing so well now, hold onto it. It will come around if they already have a name," says O’Leary.


© BDlive 2016