Post-pandemic – How has Covid-19 changed the local art scene? Part 1


This year has started on a high note, with the return of the physical Investec Cape Town Art Fair event in February. “There was a strong sense of optimism among visitors and an obvious delight in rediscovering works of art in the flesh,” says Dr Alastair Meredith, Senior Art Specialist at Strauss & Co. “Over the past two years, the art world has been forced to shift from a live, physical presence to digital and online. The paradigm shift has certainly had its challenges and its boons.” Covid -19 disrupted the art industry both locally and globally Art fairs were banned from trading in physical space, auction houses had to reevaluate their marketing and sales strategies , and art galleries have had to think creatively about connecting the artists they represent with potential buyers and collectors.

A pivot to online

“Going from digital to digital was probably the biggest adaptation we’ve had to make,” says Susie Goodman, executive director of Strauss & Co. “Previously, we had physical tours, rides and cocktails at the approaching an auction. The majority of bidders were either physically present on the day of the auction or sent representatives to bid on their behalf,” she explains, “but the company was forced to change business model after the Covid-19 hit”. Everything has gone digital. “Our live auctions are now all streamed online in real time, giving bidders another way to get in on the action. To help potential buyers make their choice, we have invested in 360 degree HD camera technology to provide a virtual viewing experience of the works that go under the hammer,” she explains. “We also held special, personal Zoom sessions with our art experts and created more videos of specific works that art lovers could access through our YouTube channel.”

Goodman explains that, in the past, remote buyers could always bid on a lot over the phone. These customers changed their minds relatively easily to a live online virtual system. “Remote auctions have always appealed to our low-key, affluent customers, but there are also bidders who thrive on the drama and gregariousness of a competitive live auction. As pandemic restrictions around public gatherings s are flexible, we are able to accommodate both preferences – remotely or in person, bidders can be part of the excitement!”.

The necessary shift from live, in situ auctions to live auctions streamed online has brought an unexpected but welcome benefit to the auction house: greater exposure to international markets and art collectors. “Before the pandemic, the majority of our international clients were South African expats interested in local art. Today, we attract international collectors who appreciate not only the aesthetic value and quality of African and South African art, but also its investment potential,” says Meredith. “At some auctions, we had international representation from almost 20 different countries! The strong dollar/pound/euro exchange rates against the South African rand make our local auctions extremely attractive to foreign bidders,” he adds. “South African art remains exceptionally cheap and international buyers get their money’s worth or their books.”

Initially, auctioneers at Strauss & Co were concerned that a live auction would not have the same drama, excitement and competition as a physical auction. These fears immediately proved unfounded. “Over the past two years, we’ve had several live virtual auctions that have far exceeded our expectations,” Meredith says. “A highlight of 2021 was the first single artist auction of its kind which focused exclusively on perennial South African favorite JH Pierneef. It took place at the height of the second hard lockdown, this which meant that viewings were restricted.Despite these challenges, all 69 lots sold and we secured a premium sale!

Modernists stay loyal, young investors buy online

Strauss & Co is also seeing adoption by young collectors and digital natives, who are turning to art to diversify their investment portfolios. According to a Reuters report, these collectors find the online world more accessible than traditional auction houses. They are more likely to buy artwork online without seeing the real thing first. Nor are these collectors afraid to hedge their investments in non-fungible tokens (NFTs) or works of art that exist only in digital form – at a recent Christie’s auction, a work by the American artist Beeple left for 70 million dollars! The advent of NFTs has turned the art world upside down, and auction houses like Strauss & Co are keeping a close eye on industry trends and repercussions. “We are particularly interested in blockchain technology and what it implies for the provenance of a work of art,” says Meredith, “because traditional documents and records are often difficult to trace, leaving the provenance of the work of incomplete art”.

Young investors are particularly fond of contemporary African artists such as Zanele Muholi, Athi-Patra Ruga, Georgina Gratrix, Lutanda Zemba Luzamba, Deborah Poynton, Yinka Shonibare, Billie Zangewa and Portia Zvavahera, and their prices increase accordingly. But the big names still seem to lean towards modernist and pre-war artists, preferring blue-chip stalwarts like JH Pierneef, Alexis Preller, Irma Stern and Anton van Wouw. On the local auction circuit, the best-selling lot of 2021 was a characteristic landscape of Pierneef, Bushveld, Pafuriwhich sold for R11.6 million.

A potential game changer for local contemporary art was No backless, after Embah, a work by South African artist Lisa Brice. The painting fetched a staggering $3,166,000 (over R50 million) at a Sotheby’s sale. The record award cemented his reputation as a leading global contemporary artist – in the company of fellow South Africans such as William Kentridge and Marlene Dumas. This bodes well for the future value of contemporary South African artists on the international auction circuit, proving they can hold their own anywhere in the world.

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