The Lazarus Effect

There has been a noticeable upswing in the prices paid for South African paintings. Kim Gurney investigates the trend

There has been much talk of a resurgence in painting in Europe, in particular trumpeted by Charles Saatchi’s The Triumph of Painting exhibition in London and new record auction prices. But painting never went out of vogue in South Africa, according to gallery owner and art dealer Warren Siebrits.

He says general taste among local collectors is for decorative art, fed by a more parochial and provincial understanding. As a consequence, painting has not suffered as much from a surge of interest in photography and conceptual installation work, as it did abroad. “The market is more conservative by nature,” he remarks. “People are extremely literal in their tastes and work is often quite representational. The general market has a decorative quality and most interest is genre-related.”

“The more traditional and conservative collector wants paintings, not video or DVD or an installation,” agrees Estelle Jacobs, gallery director of the Association for Visual Arts (AVA). “Corporations, museums and cutting-edge collections will buy [new media] but for private buyers, painting is still interesting.”

This interest has translated into an upswing in the prices paid for South African paintings. In particular, earlier twentieth century painters are finding renewed interest. A Hugo Naude painting recently tripled expectations at a Sotheby’s auction where it reached the R1-million mark. Irma Stern, Maggie Laubscher, JH Pierneef and Gerard Sekoto are other big-ticket names. Walter Battiss, whose retrospective opened in October at the Standard Bank Gallery, is also on the radar.

“You could probably still pick up a good Battiss for between R100-R150,000, which is a good buy,” says Siebrits. “His influence as an artist and a catalyst for new ideas is huge.”

Established contemporary artists like Robert Hodgins and Norman Catherine have also seen significant increases in the value of their work. According to auction statistics from V-Gallery, an online art gallery, a 60 x 60cm Hodgins painting on average costs R50,000 — almost double its R16,000 price five years ago. A Catherine painting is up almost three times in value over four years, from R14,000 in 2001 to R40,000 in 2005.

“There is no question that painting still has a place,” says Les Cohn, art consultant with Art Source. Like Siebrits, she believes painting never died.

According to Siebrits, an astute art investor should look past personal taste in painting. He advocates instead a research-driven approach that scouts for influence and importance in the artist’s contribution to the evolution of the local art industry. He says talent can usually be spotted quickly and early. Investors should also create an archive, including important exhibitions of the artist, clippings, catalogues and monographs. All these contribute to the provenance of a painting.

Andries Loots, proprietor of V-Gallery and owner of its brick and mortar offshoot, 34Long, says other factors besides provenance affect the value of a painting. These include current supply and demand, period, style and quality of material, also whether it is conservation framed and signed. If the painting is on paper, restoration also becomes a vital issue.

Loots says collectors have become more savvy of late and often buy directly from auctions where prices are generally 40 per cent less than a gallery. The reverse can also apply in a hyped bidding contest.

Investing in painting is not all science. If you are unattached to a work, Siebrits says rather step away from it. “Artists also work in cycles,” he says. “If you buy with commitment, it is immaterial if the work does not do well because you can sit out the lull with a work you enjoy. It is a mistake to base a purchase on financial return alone because as with anything of beauty, it also enhances your lifestyle and you enjoy it every day. A good yardstick is whether the work keeps evolving with you.”

Highlighting a recent trend, Jacobs points to the increased use of paint by younger artists. Examples include Mustafa Maluka, Trasi Henen, Matthew Hindley and Peter Eastman. Sanell Aggenbach is another artist who has recently picked up the brush again after turning her back on figurative painting in 2001. She says there has been quite a revolution in painting over the past few years, new painting styles incorporating graffiti and graphic influences rather than strictly adhering to classical precepts.