15-02-13-2179IE01extra Peppiatt O'Leary.jpg
Hannah O’Leary and Giles Peppiatt of Bonhams are preparing to raise the company’s profile further in the South African art market with their appearance at the Irma Stern Museum in Cape Town on February 24.

Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

COMMENT: Talk to businesses in the Cape and they will tell you that the long-term challenge is how to engage South Africa's emerging middle class when it comes to buying art.

There is a clear disconnect with the European-influenced artistic traditions that go back decades. Prices for those artists who have ridden high in the past 20 years or so are the result of competition between wealthy ex-pat South Africans and the established collecting base within the country.

It's not just fine art that needs to cross the void to guarantee its future; furniture and other collectables struggle to break out of the confines of their long-standing market to attract the nation's new money.

What to do? Anyone who comes up with the answer will doubtless make their fortune in the process.

How will the market adapt?

It could simply be a matter of time. As newly enriched classes emerge, they focus first on basic needs, such as food, housing, clothing, health and education. Later they move on to more obvious symbols of status, such as jewellery and cars. Only then, when the immediate imperative of making money has calmed and they have more leisure time, will they turn their gaze to comparatively sophisticated interests such as art and culture.

Many believe that in the environs of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria that time has arrived.

Witness the developments afoot at the South African Antique, Art Dealers' Association. Now renamed the South African Antique, Art & Design Association, they have changed their fair name and venue and launched a high-profile national advertising campaign based on the sort of slang being used at street level by twenty-somethings.

Featuring close to 50 stands, selling art and objects that ranged from jewellery and Contemporary African art to Victorian furniture, Asian antiquities and European art glass, their 2015 Annual Cape Town Expo, now held at the V&A Waterfront, closed as this article went to press.

Meanwhile dealers are extending their offer to embrace work by emerging African artists and tribal art.

The Cape Town Art Fair  (February 26-March 1) is also preparing to open its doors once again at the V&A Waterfront venue, extending interest to works from all over the continent.

The most concrete evidence of South Africa staking its claim as the continent's art capital is in Cape Town. There the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), now being built, will soon be the largest Contemporary art museum in Africa.

"It will transform the city and will be one of the leading art institutions in the country," says Angelika Elstner, erstwhile ATG representative in the country. "This is very big news for the art market here in South Africa."

So South African art professionals are certainly aware of the potential on their doorstep, but they are equally aware of the ongoing problems with the rand. It's a currency whose exchange rates make tourism and exports surefire sources of domestic revenue. However, its international weakness is an almost insurmountable barrier for art businesses hoping to extend their influence to Europe, the United States or Asia.

Bonhams, who have done more than any other firm to open up the international market for South African art, understand the advantage this gives them.

Giles Peppiatt and Hannah O'Leary now run South African art auctions out of New Bond Street in London where sales, at their height, can outperform almost every other picture department in the company.

Unlike their two closest rivals, Strauss & Co and Stephan Welz & Co, both of Cape Town and Johannesburg, they have the backing that allows them to travel the globe in search of key consignments; Canada, Israel, Australia, Hong Kong and the United States are all regular stopovers and rich sources of artworks. Between them they clock up more than 50,000 miles a year in search of South African art. 

South African art in London

Parachuting in from abroad to compete against the domestic market does not tend to win one friends, however, but they argue that they are net contributors to the cultural economy.

"We have been accused of draining South Africa of its artistic heritage," says Peppiatt, "but the truth is we have repatriated more art than we have sold abroad."

At least one art world expert has compared what Peppiatt and O'Leary have done with South African art from London to what Sir Roger de Haan has done by revitalising the local economy in Folkestone through the medium of art with his charitable trust.

"It's no exaggeration to say that they can be credited with opening up this world to a global audience, with certain artists now appealing beyond the ex-pat community to the general community of collectors."

That would make them the most influential industry professionals working in the field of South African art - and from outside the country.

Anyone expecting Strauss & Co and Stephan Welz & Co to nod their appreciation of this will be waiting a long time. This is a cut-throat world where Bonhams are seen as the interlopers by their rivals. Strauss & Co hold the whip hand when it comes to cornering trophy consignments within South Africa itself thanks to the phenomenon of their managing director Stephan Welz. For decades he has exerted a stranglehold on access to the country's leading collectors. But what happens when he steps down?

Just to confuse matters further, the other great rival is the auction house Stephan Welz & Co (SwelCo), Strauss' opponent, which Welz the man sold almost a decade ago. Its owner Alan Demby, is also chairman of the Scoin Shops chain and the South African Gold Exchange. He is used to operating on the international stage, even if he lacks the degree of auction experience enjoyed by Bonhams and Strauss.

These three parties are clearly not on the warmest terms. In their chairman's annual report, Strauss refer to SwelCo and Bonhams as "local competitor" and "international competitor", while listing the top South African artists whose sales they themselves have monopolised in the past year.

Strauss are still the force to be reckoned with, laying claim to an increase in market share for 2014 (up to 52.2% from 45.3%, according to their published results). They put Bonhams at 34.2% (down from 34.9%) and Stephan Welz & Co at 13.6% (down from 19.8%).

This would put the value of the auction market for fine art at R345m (around £20.3m).

China Girl TV stunt

Noticeably missing from Strauss' list is Vladimir Tretchikoff, whose iconic China Girl  - which spawned a million or more posters in the 1950s and '60s - sold at Bonhams in London on March 20, 2013, setting an artist's record of £840,000.

In the most extraordinary display of chutzpah, Stephan Welz was filmed on TV news channel ENUUS unveiling the picture at a special ceremony on its return to South Africa. From the film, it appeared to all the world as though it had been Strauss who had sold the picture - Bonhams were nowhere to be seen. There may be life in the old fox yet, but if Welz thinks stealing Bonhams' thunder in this way puts them in their place, he is mistaken. It has simply made them even more determined to dominate the market inside the country as well as from London.

The first evidence of this comes on February 24, when Peppiatt and O'Leary take to the stage at the Irma Stern Museum in Cape Town to talk about the dramatic global rise in the value of South African art over the past decade.

Billed as "the two people most responsible for creating an international market for South African art over the last decade", they will doubtless take the opportunity to remind the gathering of why they selected the venue. They set the world auction record for a work of art by a South African artist when they took £3m for Irma Stern's Arab Priest  in 2012, selling it to the Qatari government.

Aside from the chance to set out their own stall, the Bonhams duo promise to provide an analysis of the huge investment value of South African and African Contemporary art. They will also give their views on how this market is developing, explain the trends, indicate which artists are performing best internationally and why, and outline the challenges facing the market.

Peppiatt and O'Leary will raise the stakes by setting out their credentials not only as leading authorities on South African art but also on African Contemporary art.

"The international art world is waking up to the fact that Africa, and South Africa in particular, provide contemporary artists worth collecting, and that the continent is no longer simply a source of traditional tribal art," they say.

In doing so, they will also challenge the Canvas Curtain that has long separated South African and wider African art.

It is clear from their promotional material that Bonhams expect fine art in South Africa to furnish them with a conduit to the broader range of luxury collectables such as classic cars, wine and jewellery, glass and ceramics. And who knows how much valuable Chinese art is also waiting to be unearthed there.

It is this notion that a wealth of riches beyond fine art awaits them that explains why Bonhams are putting so much effort into claiming pre-eminence in a fine art auction market that Strauss value at just over £20m.

"Because of the company's international presence in these markets, it is able to take a work of art from South Africa and sell it in the country that currently has the most dynamic market for such items - for example, a piece of Asian porcelain would currently go to sale in Hong Kong," says Peppiatt.

Get the picture?