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Collecting Art Part 1 – Buying on Auction

Like many others, you may well be contemplating starting a personal art collection. So, the first question you should ask yourself is “Why?”, and there may well be more than one answer!

There are those who collect art as an investment, and this is definitely a topic we will examine in a later article. Then there are those who collect for the imagined prestige it will give them, much like buying a car for what other people will think about the owner; not for later discussion! I have known people whose collection started because they were left one or two pieces in a relative’s will, or they may have had an interior decorator who hung some paintings to match the rest of the décor. (This reminds me of the story of the American lady in an art gallery in Paris, who, upon seeing Picasso’s famous Blue Period piece “Nude in Blue” exclaimed excitedly “I love it! Have you got it in pink?!!”.)

Pablo Picasso 'Nude in Blue"

Which leads naturally into another set of reasons for collecting art: I like it and it makes my home look better, much like buying a car for its looks and how you look in it and that’s where we are going to start.

At the outset, I must say that I do not deal in art, nor do I have an interest in any art gallery or auctioneer’s business; so if I do mention them, which I sometimes have to in an article of this sort, it really is a free plug on my part, with nothing expected in return. Now having got that out of the way, let’s look at starting or building an art collection because I like it and it makes my home look better. Again, the questions, “What do I like?” and “What can I afford?”, and only you can answer these.

If you aren’t sure what you like, there’s no better start than getting on to and browsing the Fine Art sections of their past and upcoming auctions; fully illustrated and with indicative prices so that you can answer both the questions at the same time. For example, in their auctions late 2015 and early 2016, you could have bid on the following, all oil paintings by known South African artists, and all expected to fetch less than R 3 500 each:

And if your pockets are a bit deeper, you could have looked at these oil paintings by some of South Africa’s greatest artists:

What determines the value of a painting? Or rather, why does the Boonzaier go for about R 80 000 and the Laubser for seven-to-eight times that amount? The intrinsic values – frame, canvas, oil – are about the same for both. In the determination of the value of fine arts, antiques and collectables, influences such as market climate, sensitivity to exchange rate variances and sales history play an important role. In the cases of international artists and South African artists with an international reputation, you can expect to pay much more as their work is sold in US$, pounds Sterling, Euros or in the very active Shanghai and Hong Kong markets. So, I really don’t know! Obviously it is in the interest of art galleries and auctioneers to keep their artists’ prices up rather than down, without pricing them out of the market.

Don’t ever let the art snobs tell you that personal taste is not the right criterion in choosing art, and that you should follow the “experts”. When you buy a car, you may well look at what the motoring journalists have written, consult a friend or two, but in the end, you decide against your own criteria. And why not?

Perhaps your taste lies in wild-life art. If so, you have a very wide choice, taken from various recent auctions.

There are so many art auctioneers – in Johannesburg alone we have the above-mentioned 5th Avenue Auctioneers, plus at least Stephan Welz, Russell Kaplan, Westgate Walding and Strauss, who are also in Cape Town along with Ashbey’s; in Durban, Christie’s flies the flag. All of these auction houses have a good reputation, a web-site, and most offer on-line bidding.

BIG TIP FOR BARGAINS: Check out the auction house the day after the auction; in many cases, they are prepared to let unsold items go at the reserve price, allowing alert and careful buyers to pick-up really good works at bargain prices!

In the next chapter, we’ll look at Going to the Galleries; later, it will be Buying other Media, like watercolours, mixed media and various types of prints.



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