Buying for the love of it

An artist friend was deeply insulted when a prospective buyer—admiring one of her works—asked if she couldn’t perhaps do another one: but slightly bigger, and to use more pink in it this time, so it would go better with the black leather couch above which they planned to hang her painting. She declined of course, even though she desperately needed the money.

People think about and appreciate art in a number of ways.
For some it is purely decoration, to create an impression; then there are investors who never see what they buy, preserved as it is in vacuum vaults. There are those who at great expense heist masterpieces purely for their personal pleasure; unknown to anyone, they can enjoy its magnificence in their secret cellar. Then there was Japanese industrialist Ryoei Saito who wanted his $82.5-million Van Gogh cremated with him. Had he not changed his will, the world would have been forever deprived of a masterpiece.

For a certain circle of the super-rich, art acts as an insulated alternative currency, beyond stocks, bonds, real estate and gold; artworks, immune to regular market forces, circulate when a member of their class needs to unload for cash.

So what motivates an ordinary individual, not a wealthy collector, an institutional or corporate buyer, to decide to purchase a work of art?

The year 2005 was a time of beginnings for Georgia Black, a freelance journalist and former Marie Claire features editor, and her husband, Justin Letschert. They were building a new house in Cape Town, spectacularly situated on Bantry Bay’s Ocean View Drive, and they had just had a baby at the time.

They wanted an installation piece for the entry foyer to go with the modern new house. The work would be integrated and form part of the structured space. Their architect, Sean Mahoney of studioMAS, introduced them to several artists. It was the work of Willem Boshoff that moved them.

“It’s not a quick process [with Boshoff],” said Black. “It’s philosophical and layered. He is guided by the environment when he makes something, and he has an incredible understanding of natural materials. He is completely unpretentious. The purity of his process shows through in the work.”

They gave him carte blanche.

“You never know what you going to get with Willem as his work is so different and varied and his mind works in a way quite unlike anyone else I’ve met,” said Black. As a young couple, they also knew it was unlikely that they would spend the rest of their lives in the house. Sooner or later they’d have to part with the work.

Boshoff presented them with four panels, each an assemblage of beautifully carved wooden shapes; the planes, angles and wooden carvings echoing sheet music. He called it Wood Concerto in Four Parts.

Black and Letschert were thrilled.

“People either hate it or they love it,” said Black. “It is modern art, the kind that people often admire in galleries, but would never take home. We love it.”

“We’re not into art as investment. I’m sure some people sell their art, but generally young people buy art in a different way. We buy a work because we like it. Some of my favourite pieces are of very little commercial value.”

They have lived with the work now for almost five years, and it has given them continuous enjoyment. Eventually though, the day arrived that they put the house up for sale. [The couple recently moved to Higgovale, to a “farm-style” house with a garden for their two sons.]

“When the new buyer came to look, one of the first things she said was ‘I love that work. It is amazing’,” said Black. “The chances are someone who doesn’t like the work won’t like the house—they’re both quite rugged and different, especially for the Atlantic seaboard.”

For design maverick Ayanda Holo, director of the Misael space on Bree Street, Cape Town, it was a personal connection that led him to purchase a work by artist Serge Alain Nitegeka. They met at a jazz venue in the city. Holo was actually laying claim to a table he had booked and which was occupied by the artist and Joost Bosland of the Michael Stevenson gallery.

Holo says he was awed to discover that what had been one of the best years in his life — 1994, when South Africa became a democracy — was one of Burundian Nitegeka’s worst years, the time of the Rwandan genocide. His extraordinarily powerful and moving exhibition last year, entitled Cargo, featured portraits painted on crates, some stopping above the nose, for supposedly some could tell a Hutu from a Tutsi by the shape of their noses.

“I had been to East Africa and I had met Rwandans and I was unable to get any information about them, whether they were alive or dead, at the time,” says Holo. The piece he bought is a subtle work with charcoal and texture on a wooden crate.

“It tells the story, moving people as cargo,” he says. He invites one to look closer. There are tiny figures of fleeing individuals, at first not apparent.

“It could be taken as ‘resistance art’, when one describes it. But it is not an obvious piece, and the portrayal is so personal. It is just such a beautiful work.

“Some people say things like, ‘I could have done that’, but you can give them all the tools, and they will never ever have had that imagination.”

Holo keeps the work in his office, up close to his desk, his back to the city and mountain views.

“I don’t think I’ll ever sell it,” he says. “And I"m definitely going to the Jo’burg Art Fair.”

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