Price movements in the global art market were volatile last year, although certain sub-sectors continued to settle the nerves of investors. At the very top of the mega-priced was a clutch of artworks whose value-meters clicked ever upwards, mostly justifying them as investments of super merit.

According to Knight Frank’s 2017 Wealth Report, art declined 14% to the fourth quarter of 2016, yet was still up 139% over 10 years. Many genres fared less well than paintings, which recorded higher-than-expected prices towards the end of the year. November’s New York sales, which traditionally mark the end of the auction year, attracted strong bidding, with the top price of the year achieved by Christie’s when it sold one of Claude Monet’s iconic Grainstack paintings for $81 million (R1 billion) – way above its $45m estimate.

Thus the market for alternative investments is much like other markets – they go through peaks and troughs, sometimes offering steady, or spectacular returns, and sometimes falling out of favour.

Examples of how the prevailing trend has been bucked came via stellar prices set by superstars Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani. Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (Version “O”) (1955) sold for $179m at Christie’s New York, to break the auction record for any painting. Modigliani’s Nu couché sold for $170.4m also at Christie’s New York. When Will You Marry?, a painting by Paul Gauguin of two Tahitian girls, became the most expensive work of art sold when it was bought by a museum in Qatar for $300m.

Notably, interest for art as an investment in Africa continues to take root, with the Standard Bank Gallery’s “Henri Matisse: Rhythm and Meaning” exhibition reflecting the growing interest in quality alternative investments. The exhibition closed on a successful note, having attracted more than 30 000 visitors eager to marvel at the iconic French artist’s versatility. The robust visitor numbers for this exhibition compare favourably with previous exhibitions of 20th-century modernists at the gallery and are exceeded only by 2006’s Picasso showcase, which drew 56 000 visitors.

“Increasingly, African investors in passion investments such as art are learning that spending money on rare items may be driven by enjoyment and appreciation for beauty – but it is also an investment that can leave conventional investments trailing far behind,” said Philip Faure, the global head of wealth planning at Standard Bank Wealth and Investment.

According to the Knight Frank report, a marked variation in performance was noticeable across different genres. European Impressionist painters, such as Matisse and Cézanne, saw the largest annual drop in the value of works sold at auction, while 19th-century artists, such as Constable and Turner, rose by 19%. Modern and contemporary works, which have previously been the stellar performers in the art index, recorded drops of 8% and 2% respectively.