Cape Town - Staid Cape Dutch manor houses on winelands estates are turning into palaces of art, some housing major collections worth millions of rand.
Stephan Welz, doyen of South African art dealers, says much of the credit for doing what you might call a Medici in the winelands should go to London jeweller Laurence Graff, owner of Delaire-Graff Wine Estate in Stellenbosch.
Graff, with an estimated net worth of $4.3 billion, cuts a swathe as the self-styled King of Diamonds. He is the jeweller who famously cut nearly five carats away from the £16.4-million Wittelsbach diamond, enhancing its clarity and quality and more than doubling its monetary value. Graff is an eminent collector of contemporary art, and sits on the boards of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the International Council of the Tate Modern in London, the Berggruen Museum in Berlin, and is a trustee of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
He is also, at a cost at auction of just under £1m (R15m), the owner of one of the veritable icons of kitsch, the original of Vladimir Tretchikoff’s ubiquitously reproduced Chinese Girl, now hanging as the centrepiece of his estate collection.
But, says Welz, there is depth to the Delaire collection, not merely bling, and Graff has pumped many more millions into fleshing out a collection that, as Welz puts it, “is worthy of being looked at”.
It is one that made the neighbours take note. Welz is not prepared to say just who has been buying expensive art, but, speaking from the perspective of an auctioneer, he is prepared to say Graff’s interventions have raised the bar in the auction business at a time when public museums such as the Iziko National Gallery are on a tight budget and corporate investors are choosing to spend on social responsibility programmes and avoid the elitist taint of high art.
Major estates including Spier, Graham Beck and banker GT Ferrreira’s Tokara now boast substantial art collections, some predating Graff’s 2003 purchase of Delaire.
Just how it plays at the marketing level is indicated by Tokara’s website, which fuzzily proclaims, “Tokara is the embodiment of GT Ferreira’s philosophy that good wine, good food and good art go together to make a good lifestyle.”
Graham Beck Wines sell a wine tasting experience “adorned by artwork”.
Spier’s involvement is more robust, running to hosting festivals, commissioning major sculptures and sponsoring the annual Infecting the City festival in Cape Town.
But alongside all of this there are collections like that of Hanneli Rupert-Koegelenberg at La Motte, which focuses on JH Pierneef. Such collections become repositories of a cultural memory that fades the further we move into the future of democratic South Africa.
“Between 60 and 70 percent of the major buyers of South African art at our auctions are Afrikaner families,” Welz notes. “It’s a shift. In earlier decades the major collectors were predominantly Jewish, but that is no longer the case.”
Welz concedes that art represents a generally profitable investment commodity and hedge against inflation. If you buy well, the appreciation rate is at least attractive, and dazzling if you’re lucky. But, says Welz, the South African market has been relatively free of the speculative investment buying that saw the bottom fall out of the market for artists like Julian Schnabel and Francesco Clemente after being lionised and overtraded in the 1980s and 1990s.
Other players are less sanguine. Art dealer and gallerist Michael Stevenson says auctions are always a problem for dealers. “When they register high prices, they distort the market; when they don’t, they undermine the business of dealing.”
For Stevenson, the problem is that auctions are one-off sales and reflect the interests of the owners of artworks, whereas dealers are working in the long-range and strategic interests of the artists they represent.
A gallerist who did not want to be named said the danger was that triumphant auctions forced galleries to raise prices of work by particular artists into the same ballpark, effectively pricing them out of the market.
From Welz’s perspective it is all to the good. “Of course collectors all have their own reasons for buying art, and art collecting does inevitably reflect wealth and power.”
But, he says, art collecting has always done that. It would be naive to think Pope Julius II had anything in mind other than the greater glory of Pope Julius II in commissioning Michelangelo to paint the Sistine ceiling, yet out of that commission came one of the greatest works of art in the Western canon. So too the Medicis were notoriously philistine taskmasters in handling the painters and sculptors in their service.
But – and here is Welz’s point – whatever their motives, the interventions of the Medicis in Florence were indissolubly tied up with the emergence of a highly sophisticated and articulated tradition that has lived on way beyond memory of the peccadilloes of its funders.
“What I see (in South Africa) is a greater cultural sophistication in the way that art is being bought and collected at the present time. The market is not stupid.”
What Welz is getting at is that when prices paid for Irma Stern first went through the roof in the past decade, high-end buying was almost exclusively focused on the artist’s Zanzibar period, paintings of a generally romantic and exotic cast she made from sojourns on the east coast of Africa. Her more domestic output – still lifes and South African portraiture – was, if not ignored, approached more tentatively, with markedly less of that determination to buy that drives prices up at auction.
While prices for some Zanzibar Sterns have continued to rise – from a then-record of R1.7m in 2000 to R34m in 2011 – Welz says buying patterns at recent auctions reflect growing discernment. There’s an understanding that not all the Zanzibar work is of equal standard or worth. But, more important for Welz, potential collectors have come to look at the rest of Stern’s output through new eyes.
Stern’s still lifes have benefited with the composition Magnolias and Fruit, painted in the late 1940s, fetching R9 662 800, nearly R2m up from the R8m estimate. On the same auction you could have picked up a more modest Stern graphic for under R10 000. What this market renegotiation amounts to in Welz’s view is an ongoing debate on value at every level – around those elusive qualities that make an artwork valuable or (in the cultural context) important in the first place.
Such intangibles were powerfully foregrounded in probably the most remarkable of Strauss and Co’s auction results – the R5.5m achieved late last year for a Jane Alexander figure sculpture from the earlier 1980s, made while the artist was a student.
Coming under the hammer at more than double the R2.3m estimate, it more than quintupled the highest price paid for an Alexander work – R1m for a far more nuanced tableaux, Racework – In the Event of an Earthquake.
The reason for the giddy numbers was not present at the auction – Untitled emerged from a wave of creative engagement by the artist leading up to the famous Butcher Boys, centrepiece of the Iziko National Gallery’s South African collection. As Welz puts it, “It was the proximity to the Butcher Boys that determined the value. Untitled was as close as you were ever going to get to buying the Butcher Boys.”
By contrast, there is the fate of the one-time recordholder for South African sculpture, Anton van Wouw. An artist who thrived within the cultural programmes of the apartheid regime, and whose work often came close to reflecting its ideological programmes, Van Wouw, as Welz notes, simply does not move in the market today.
There is a cultural message in there somewhere. There might also be a message to be explored in no major art collector having come to the fore from the new billionaire black elite, which appears to prefer to collect designer wildlife or football clubs rather than Gerard Sekoto.
l Strauss and Co, Conde Nast House&Garden and Delaire Graff Estate will be exhibiting Irma Stern’s Two Arabs with Trechikoff’s Chinese Girl as centrepieces of their stand at the Cape Town Art Fair between February 28 and March 2. Also on show are two other works by Stern and a selection of furniture and precious objects.
The Fair is at the Pavillion on Dock Road at the V&A Waterfront. - Sunday Argus