Boom Theory

There are an estimated 9.5 million high net worth individuals globally, some of them South African. Sean O’Toole looks at how they’re changing the shape of art collecting

Sold: R1.1m, Irma Stern (1894 — 1966), Anemones (1938), Oil on canvas, 60 x 60cm, Estimate: R1.2 — 1.5m, Auction: Sotheby’s, Cape Town, May 29 — 30, 2007

The 11th annual World Wealth Report, published on June 27, offers an unvarnished insight into the current global art boom. Jointly published by financial managers Merrill Lynch and management consultants Capgemini, the report monitors the activities of the world’s estimated 9.5 million high net worth individuals, people holding more than $1m (R6.5m) in financial assets. Art figures prominently in their narrative.”As high net worth individuals’ personal wealth has increased so has their interest in fine art,” the report reads in a section tracking luxury spending. “Once viewed almost exclusively as the pastime of connoisseurs, art collecting is increasingly seen as an investment. This, in turn, is helping fuel a large international art market that has been setting record prices not just for the scarce work of old masters but also for the creative output of popular contemporary artists.”Second to luxury collectibles (defined as automobiles, boats, airplanes and the like), art is said to be the key “investment of passion” amongst high net worth individuals. Partly this is because of “the low correlation between art prices and the market cyclicality of stocks, bonds and real estate”.The report is not without relevance to the local art market, where prices for early twentieth masters continue to swell. At a Sotheby’s auction held in May, for instance, works by Irma Stern and Maggie Laubser again commanded six figure values. Laubser’s Woman with an Orange Kopdoek fetched R1.89m, doubling its pre-sale estimate. According to the report, which last year identified South Africa as one of four countries globally to see the sharpest rise in high net-worth individuals, emerging economies are helping to drive the current global art boom.Not only are emerging markets setting the pace for global economic growth, “their wealthiest citizens are [also] becoming enthusiastic collectors, especially for artwork and objects that reflect their cultural identities,” the report added. Auction houses have been quick to capitalise.In May, London auction house Bonhams hosted the first ever sale focussing only on South African art at a venue outside of South Africa. Speaking to Moneyweb shortly before the May 23 auction, Giles Peppiatt, a director at Bonhams, stated: “We’ve seen demand for South African painting grow in an enormous way over the past two or three years, and certainly it’s so strong now that we decided that it would be worthwhile to hold a sale specifically devoted to this category of painting.”The London auction included work by Tinus de Jongh, Adolph Jentsch, Ruth Prowse and Maud Sumner, as well as drawings by William Kentridge. While Fred Page’s Mummy with Toy Gallows, a 1964 oil on board work, fetched a mere £2,200 (R30,800) plus Premium and tax, JH Pierneef’s work Camelthorn Tree, Kalahari collected £68,000 (R980,000). Predictably, works by Stern generated the most fuss. Carrying a pre-sale estimate of £80,000 – 120,000, Stern’s 1961 oil on canvas, The Tomato Picker, fetched £155,000 (R2.23m). A lacklustre 1967 Senegalese street scene by Gerard Sekoto fetched £22,000 (R316,000). Interest in Sekoto is currently very high. In May 2006, a self-portrait of the artist sold for £123,450 (R1.77m), breaking all previous records for his work at auction. Commenting on the ongoing global art boom, Mark Poltimore, UK chairman of auction house Sotheby’s, remarked: “I do think this boom is very different from any other boom because it is so universal. The money is coming from every corner and every source.”