According to the 2018 AfrAsia Bank South Africa Wealth Report, the art market has an approximate value of $75-billion. Of this, Africa’s portion accounts for $1-billion. The South African piece of the pie is worth $385-million. Art prices in the country have risen by 28% in the past decade; global prices rose by 12% within the same timeframe.
For those who are not well versed in creative currency, the art market — which rates a 37 x 30.5cm Maggie Laubser oil on board painting at about R300 000 — may be a repellant enigma, because art serves no utilitarian purpose in our daily lives.
As Michael Findlay puts it in his 2012 book The Value of Art: Money, Power, Beauty: “You cannot live in it, drive it, eat, drink, or wear it … We pay for things that can be lived in, driven, consumed, and worn; and we believe in an empirical ability to judge their relative quality and commercial value.”
Curator and co-founder of the Black Collectors Forum (BCF), Andile Magengelele, says: “People that I used to go to school with have the means, they’ve got huge television sets, huge cars and all the furnishings, but they have nothing on their walls. They don’t buy art.”
In the know: Art consultant Makgati Molebatsi encourages visual art appreciation and acquisition. (Oupa Nkosi)
BCF, which he co-founded with Tshepiso Mohala, is an informal platform where black people are invited to talk about collecting, appreciating, investing and the philanthropic aspects of art. With no funding, BCF get-togethers take place when the founders’ personal resources allow.
In the same way that there is no objective value in a R200 note, art’s value comes from and continues to be maintained by human stipulation and declaration: both are without value until we say so.
In light of this, the Mail & Guardian took a look at the influences that determine how art accrues value, and the impact this can have on the artist and the market at large.
“The market determines your worth. You can price it, but the amount the collector is willing to pay for an artwork determines [its] value and worth,” says art consultant Makgati Molebatsi, founder of Mak’Dct Art Advisory and Agency.
Molebatsi’s art career began when she took early retirement from her flourishing career in marketing in 2015 and used her savings to study an art and business course through Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London. A year later she established Mak’Dct.
As an art consultant Molebatsi encourages visual art appreciation and acquisition by simplifying the visceral and intellectual engagement that the everyday person associates with the art world. Her clientele ranges from companies that recruit her to hold art literacy workshops to individuals who are interested in becoming collectors.
While viewing the new additions to JP Morgan’s art collection at its Johannesburg offices a few weeks ago, I happened to walk into one of Molebatsi’s workshops about the various elements that go into determining an artwork’s worth.
First, Molebatsi informed the crowd how artwork can be acquired, either through the primary or secondary market. In the primary market, the collector buys directly from the artist; the secondary market involves “buying art with provenance” (a history of ownership). The latter is purchased through auction houses, galleries, other collectors or museums.
She explained how, in most scenarios, purchasing on the primary market works out to be cheaper, because there is no institutional middleman.
Other aspects that determine value have to do with an artwork’s materiality; the longevity of the medium as well as the artist’s skill set.
In his book, Findlay explains this by comparing oil on canvas to charcoal on paper: “Oil on canvas is generally known to be a highly durable medium. Short of direct trauma, it can withstand handling and extremes of temperature and humidity … Not so works on paper, which are usually priced lower to account for their greater fragility.”
In an interview with the M&G, Molebatsi adds how collectors should also consider the artist’s exposure and stature in the industry, as this will determine the market’s demand.
Other factors related to the demand have to do with the work’s rarity and uniqueness, which are influenced by how often the artist has or is creating similar works, and whether or not the artist is still alive.
The higher the demand, the higher the accrual, because as much as collectors are patrons, Molebatsi explains how “they are also tastemakers” who can manipulate the market with their interests.
It can be argued that these elements have an inevitable impact on the artist’s process. Molebatsi explains that in order for an artist to reach the desired means of accrued value in their work, “the artist should continue putting in effort and innovating [their work]. Then the market and industry will respond.”
Most South African collectors are white, so the emergence of a forum such as BCF can play a significant role, because its patrons have taken an active interest in art.
“So, we are building a new, still very small, breed of middle-class black collectors and, as such, tastemakers in the industry,” says Magengelele.
Other components include the artwork’s size, its condition, authenticity, as well as the promotion that art dealers put into the piece.
As there isn’t a single governing body regulating these processes and how they interact with one another to determine an artwork’s worth, the resolutions are not clear-cut, leaving room for buyers and collectors to purchase artworks at a steal.
With reference to flipping a $1 000 purchase of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi into $450-million, art speculator Alexander Parish told Vulture magazine: “A major part of what I do is educated gambling. You get a good feeling about a piece of art, and you place a bet that you know more about it than the auctioneer does.”
While the likes of Molebatsi and Magengelele try to remedy the shortfalls in art literacy among black people, their efforts require more support in order to normalise appreciation at a national level, because the unfamiliarity is inherited.
Before 1994, black South Africans were barred entry to museums and art galleries where they could cultivate an interest in the arts and develop a sustainable relationship with it.
“Black artists were neglected by museums, collectors and art galleries,” adds Magengelele. “Black people weren’t even allowed into galleries and museums. Black artists were exploited, in terms of their pricing. Post-1994 there were no boycotts, but [black] people were still not going to museums and galleries.
“[Black] artists still struggle to navigate the industry, and it’s because it was not our nature. But the department of arts and culture does not see why they should fund this initiative; they don’t get it.”