The incomplete library

Books about favourite artists offer a rewarding, if increasingly expensive collecting pursuit, writes Kim Gurney

Collectors buying books about artists to complement their art collections could find they become investments in their own right, according to industry experts. Geoffrey Klaas at Collectors Treasury, the destination used and rare bookstore at 244 Commissioner Street in central Johannesburg, says books certainly have a value in and of themselves: “Clearly, as the art market self-burgeons, it drags the reference material with it”.
A glance at auction results offers evidence of this trend, says Andries Loots at gallery 34Long in Cape Town. A copy of Esmé Berman’s Art & Artists of South Africa (1970) reportedly fetched R6300 at a recent Sotheby’s auction. Berman’s reference book is repeatedly highlighted by dealers as highly collectable and sought after. This despite being somewhat selective and opinionated, according to one source, and increasingly outdated, according to another. Other reference books are also benefiting from this rising tide. They include The Dictionary of South African Painters and Sculptors (1988) by Grania Ogilvie, which peaked recently at around R3000, according to Klaas. In addition to these reference publications, books on early twentieth century South African Masters are also in demand, particularly works on JH Pierneef and Irma Stern. According to Clarke’s Bookshop, located on Cape Town’s Long Street, books on Pierneef can fetch quite a bit of money at auction largely because they are out of print. Pierneef (1947) by JWF Grosskopf can fetch between R2000 and R4000. Klaas acknowledges there is a faddish element also: books should be “a desirable reference on a desirable artist”; publications on artists currently out of fashion have lower price tags.
Some books are distinguished chiefly by their scarcity, as for example the single tome on Alexis Preller. Despite being written early in his career, Alexis Preller, with notes by Christi Truter (1947) is a sought-after publication. (A second book on Preller is currently in production.)
Even catalogues of seminal exhibitions can become valued. Art in Ambiguity, published by the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) in 1991 for a show of the same name, commands up to R4800 even though it is a paperback, says Clarke’s. And the hardcover catalogue for the JAG’s The Neglected Tradition: Towards a New History of South African Art sold recently for R2000, says Collectors Treasury. Occasionally even brochures for exhibitions can make the cut, but this is rare. And then there are books that are popular but not really of investment value — yet. The first edition of Sue Williamson’s Resistance Art (1989) is one example. (Double Storey recently gave it a second print run.)
Quagga Art and Book Dealers in Kalk Bay agree books about artists definitely have investment value in their own right and some good monographs have gone up enormously in value. But Collectors Treasury advises a little more caution around books on contemporary artists. Klaas says publications on William Kentridge are fetching good sums but suggests it could take time before price catches up with reputation in the case of other established artists, for example Jane Alexander.
So what should collectors look out for? Partly because of the capricious nature of the market and partly because the publishing market in South Africa is small, it is difficult to anticipate which books are likely to rise in value over time. Anthony Wiley, of Wiley & Tenquist Antique Valuers, says investment value with books is a difficult area. For one thing, there are not many South African contemporary art books (“full-stop”) — and none at all on certain collectable artists, like WH Coetzer. As a result, collectors tend to scramble when books do come up for sale. “Collectors tend to be completist so they will buy everything they can lay their hands on,” says Wiley.
Clarke’s Bookshop trawls for particular books on behalf of buyers but it can be a frustrating watch with intermittent sightings: five or ten years can pass without spotting a particular publication and then suddenly one or two crop up.
One area still regarded as relatively “soft” is that of artists’ books, such as Irma Stern’s Congo and Zanzibar works. Klaas says: “They are still under-priced relative to the way the paintings have moved. All the Skotnes portfolios too, both Cecil and Pippa, are cheap at the moment.” Another pointer is to look out for a signature or inscription, which differentiates a book and enhances its value. Auctions, second-hand bookstores and the web are all good places to search for collectable art books.