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In early 2018, Aspire Art Auctions and Strauss & Co, two rival South African auction houses, settled an uncertain fact when they sold important photographs by David Goldblatt for handsome five-figure sums. The results were achieved in the months before the celebrated documentary photographer's death in June and marked a stunning turnaround for a medium that has long been shunned by South African collectors.
The extent of the reversal is worth dwelling on.
In 2011, two important photographs by Goldblatt fetched middling sums at Strauss & Co auctions. A 1980 photo of a Boksburg couple dancing under the watchful eye of a dance instructor fetched R77,980, while a 1985 photo of a fifteen-year-old detainee with both his arms in plaster casts achieved only R38,990. Both photos were vintage prints, a crucial factor in determining a photo’s value.
Seven years later at auction house, Strauss & Co’s maiden contemporary art auction in Cape Town, Goldblatt’s 2007 colour photo portraying an extensive landscape at Nqondwana, near Port Edward, sold for R329,672. The work is part of an edition of 10 duplicate prints. A few months later in Johannesburg, Aspire sold a 2003 photo of depicting life on the urban fringe of the City of Gold for R318,640.
Images courtesy of Goldblatt. Supplied by Strauss & Co.
Local collectors finally warmed to Goldblatt, who in 1998 became the first South African to hold a solo exhibition at MOMA, New York.
Other local beneficiaries of the upswing
In March 2018, Aspire sold The Night of the Long Knives III, a vivid fantasy portrait made in 2014 by Athi-Patra Ruga, for R295,568. Two years ago Strauss sold Pieter Hugo’s 2007 portrait of a man standing beneath a Lagos flyover with a chained baboon for R125,048. It helped that Hugo’s portrait was explicitly referenced in the 2011 music video for Beyoncé’s song 'Run the World (Girls)'.
Image: The Night of the Long Knives III by Athi-Patra Ruga. Supplied by Aspire Art Auctions
Like Goldblatt, Hugo struggled for a long time to find a local market for his confrontational colour portraits. At the 2006 auction of Brett Kebble’s estate in Cape Town the audience laughed when three of Hugo’s photos of people with albinism went on sale. The photos sold for R2,000 each. Works from this series remain unpopular, but in November 2018 his group portrait Hyena Men of Abuja sold at Aspire for R375,540 to an American collector.
Persuading local collectors to get behind photography has been the undoing of dealers.
In 2009 Warren Siebrits closed his adventurous gallery space on Jan Smuts Avenue in Johannesburg, citing a lack of interest in photography as major reason.
Solo shows for photographers Santu Mofokeng and Jo Ractliffe had generated negligible sales. Six extremely rare prints by Roger Ballen offered by Siebrits at an art fair in Johannesburg also failed to attract buyers.
This run of events led Siebrits to conclude that local collectors were “prejudiced against photography,” possibly due to their unfamiliarity with the medium and its rich history.
“Photography is largely succeeding abroad,” said Siebrits.
It was a view shared by Cape Town dealer Michael Stevenson. In 2009, Stevenson exhibited Goldblatt’s In Boksburg (1979-80), a photographic essay that dwells on life in this former whites-only municipality east of Johannesburg. Key works from this essay have seen buyers at Strauss & Co and Aspire auctions in 2017 and 2018 pay between R125,000 and R295,000 for individual photos. By contrast, Stevenson’s 2009 selling exhibition failed to attract any South African buyers.
"South Africans have a very limited view of how extraordinary the realm of photography is, never mind how many extraordinary photographers they have in their midst," said Stevenson at the time.
The issue of price
Price has long been a point of conflict between dealers and collectors. Local collectors have historically likened photos to works on paper and expected prices to show parity with lesser-priced prints and multiples. Instead, works by Ballen, Goldblatt, Hugo and Zanele Muholi are typically offered in euros and dollars sums and priced upwards of R75,000 per work.
"Photography is not associated with status, even though the prices are not what would appeal to an entry-level collector," said Federica Angelucci, a director and specialist in photography at Stevenson.
Lack of scarcity makes collectors cautious
There are other factors hampering the uptake of photography as a collectable. Scarcity is a key marker of value, but many photographers do not strictly limit their editions, often printing new editions in a different size when there is a run on a particular work. All of which has left the market cautious – and historically wide open to bullish photo enthusiasts like advocate Tony Rubens and designer Garth Walker.
Both the Goodman Gallery and Stevenson confirmed that the majority of their local clients collect broadly and include photography in their scope of choices. Specialist photo collectors, though, are a rarity. “You can count them on one hand,” said Tony East, a director at Goodman Gallery.
About the author
Sean is a Cape Town-based journalist and editor. He's also a contributor to Investec Focus content for the Investec Cape Town Art Fair. He holds separate degrees in English literature, law, and creative writing.
• Billy Monk Collection • THK Gallery • Sitor Senghor • Goodman Gallery