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Global demand for African art brings near-record year for South African auction house despite ‘much

Pierre-Christophe Gam's The Affogbolo, Him Green, Affogbolo series (2015), part of Strauss & Co's new "Curatorial Voices: Modern and Contemporary Art from Africa" sale

A soaring global demand for African art and increased digital access has contributed to a near-record year for the South African auction house Strauss & Co, which yesterday reported sales totalling R354m ($20.6m) in 2022. That sum narrowly missed its highest annual total of R356m ($20.7m) achieved in 2021.

“In the context of the macroeconomic conditions in southern Africa and the world, it was really a very strong performance,” says Frank Kilbourn, the auction house’s chairperson.

Over the course of last year, Strauss & Co sold 6,381 lots with 53 of those selling for more than R1m ($58,000) with an average sell through rate of 71%—a robust percentage but still someway off the 90% achieved by the auction house’s new wine department. Online sales, held each month, contributed R63.7m ($3.7m).

Kilbourn notes how the economic conditions in South Africa have been unfavourable over the past couple of years. “We’ve had low economic growth, we’ve had high inflation [and] increasing interest rates, and altogether much higher degrees of uncertainty. And I don’t think [2022] was the greatest of years for the creation of wealth.”

So why has the art market thrived, relatively speaking? “South African art as a whole is in the best place [it] has ever been. And that is a consequence of the art ecosystem being much more mature than it was five or six years ago,” Kilbourn says.

He notes how the country is producing artists “of extraordinary ability [who have] managed to grab attention worldwide and [are] addressing contemporary issues in a way that is both thought provoking, and I believe enduring”.

In addition, South Africa’s gallery system has developed enormously in the past couple of years, while three major museums have been added to the landscape in recent years: the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town and the Norval Foundation, both in Cape Town, and the Javett Art Centre in Pretoria.

Global interest has piqued following these investments. At Strauss & Co, nine of its top 20 lots last year sold to overseas clients, while international buyers have leapt 60% over the past five years. Around 40% lower than its major international competitors, the firm’s commission structure makes it particularly appealing to global buyers.

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