Page through any publication featuring ‘art’ and you are likely to see interviews and insights from a range of collectors such as celebrities, wealthy business people, enthusiasts and young collectors. Among the common questions asked in such interviews are “Who is your favourite artist?” and “Which piece in your collection do you love the most?” The answers to these questions also vary widely and, I suspect, are greatly dependent upon the size of the interviewee’s cheque book. What is consistent, however, is the prominence all collectors place on contemporary artists, be they fairly obscure or relatively prominent.
Surprisingly not many of the current crop of sought-after and collectable contemporary artists have a great deal of their work available on auction. This may simply be because the collectors of such works are not selling so there is very little stock flowing through to the secondary sales market, customarily via auction houses. It may also be that auction houses in South Africa traditionally placed more emphasis on “traditional” as opposed to “contemporary” art. There has been a marked shift however to give contemporary artists more prominence in the auction market.
This then brings us to the secondary art market and, in particular, the reputable auction houses. In discussions I’ve had with auction houses, it is manifestly clear that they would only accept works by artists who have built up a good reputation, initially outside of the auction space. Of course, there are other factors they also consider, such as condition, the overall quality of the work and provenance. You may, therefore, find that the work of a very good, but unknown, contemporary artist may not be accepted by a reputable auction house even though the work is comparable to that of artists who have already gained recognition through gallery promotions and self-marketing. Reputable galleries and auction houses certainly play an important role in sifting artists which certainly serves as a good guide to any new collector intending to spend beyond aesthetic value only.
It is also not uncommon to find the work of young and upcoming contemporary artists selling at auction for considerably less than the amount paid by the seller, who may have purchased via a gallery or directly from the artist. You know an artist has “arrived” when his or her work starts selling at auction for the same price asked by galleries, or, in some cases, even more.
As with any long-term investment, time, perception and sentiment will ultimately drive the prices achieved at auction. Therefore, in order to achieve good returns, art should not be bought as a quick-turnaround, money-making investment, but should rather be viewed as a long-term asset class, if not merely a good store of value.