Aspire Art Auctions: A newcomer to the local secondary art market

Rumblings in the secondary art market having given birth to a new fine art auction house, Aspire Art Auctions. This new company is headed by two well-known figures in the industry, Mary-Jane Darroll and Ruarc Peffers. At the heart of this new business is the development of South African and African art industries and, ultimately, the raised profile of African modern and contemporary art and artists abroad. According to the founders, the local art market has emerged from a small enterprise to a multi-million rand industry over the past two decades. This trajectory sees the value of local and African art levelling with international pricing as the global interest in the African art market continues to boom. This can be noted by the high calibre international art fairs either dedicated exclusively to African art such as 1:54 or featuring special African art focus exhibits, setting the primary market agenda. We chat to the founders of Aspire to find out more about the secondary market for African modern and contemporary art and the business of fine art auctioneering. 

Robert Hodgins  1920-2010, South African Totems in a Desert 1998 oil on canvas signed, dated and inscribed with the title and medium on the reverse 120.5 x 90 cm
Robert Hodgins 1920-2010, South African
Totems in a Desert, 1998. Oil on canvas. Signed, dated and inscribed with the title and medium on the reverse. 120.5 x 90 cm

How do you go about launching an art auction house?

Any business start-up begins with a vision: we’re invested in the art community and are passionate about South African art and art from the continent and aim to make the best works of art available to collectors via our auctions.

Pragmatics and logistics follow. You need a clear understanding what purpose the business fulfils and know that you’re able to execute all the organisational and administrative requirements, for example the structural framework that enables you to start your first day of business. The critical element is raising the funding to enable infrastructural development and also to cover costs until you start to generate revenue. Of course, knowing what the nature of your business is, one has to estimate risk and project success rates. 

Is there much space for innovation and different models in the fine art auction business? What will differentiate Aspire from existing auction houses in South Africa?

There most definitely is. What we have seen within the international auction market, for example, is Sotheby’s acquiring Art Agency Partners for $50 million to enable them to enter a different market sector of younger, aspiring collectors. We have seen several examples where auction houses’ modus operandi has become outdated and it is vital that any business continuously reassesses its own efficiency within the market place.

We hope to better integrate historical collecting with the more contemporary and up-to-date approach, paying careful attention not only to the contemporary market but also to the aesthetics of how one presents and displays art. For example, British collector, Charles Saatchi, in his astute selection and buying within the contemporary market together with the development of the Tate Modern Museum caused an explosion in both value and content in the British art market.

Diane Victor b.1964 South Africa Family Matters, 2015. Candle smoke on paper. Signed, dated and inscribed with the title on the reverse. 98.5 x 151 cm
Diane Victor b.1964 South Africa
Family Matters, 2015. Candle smoke on paper. Signed, dated and inscribed with the title on the reverse. 98.5 x 151 cm

What is the current climate of the secondary fine art market in South Africa?

If you look historically at this market one sees that it is one of peaks and troughs when using a close-up perspective, but if one were hypothetically to zoom out from this graph and see a long term timeline – for instance, 25 years – one would notice that there is a very definite and constant upward trajectory. In South Africa, we have seen a constant vacillation of “investors in fine art”, where a weakening or strengthening rand has caused either a focus on international or local artists and artworks.

Will Aspire be focusing on attracting local or international clients? What are the advantages of each audience?

We would like to grow our local client base, and believe strongly that the value of South African artworks within the global context is one where you get good value for money both in terms of the quality, execution and conceptual depth, as well as the fact that the currency favours international buyers getting great value when buying South African art.

Athi-Patra Ruga b. 1984 South Africa Convention…Procession…Elevation, 2013. Acrylic Wool and Gold Thread. Signed, dated, inscribed with the title on a label on the reverse. 175 x 300 cm
Athi-Patra Ruga b. 1984 South Africa
Convention…Procession…Elevation, 2013. Acrylic Wool and Gold Thread. Signed, dated, inscribed with the title on a label on the reverse. 175 x 300 cm

Globally there’s a lot of interest in African contemporary art. How will Aspire plug into this?

Over the last three years we have seen committees and groups of experts and collectors from the Tate Modern, Guggenheim and MoMA New York, and many others, scouting South Africa, meeting with curators and artists, and being intrigued and excited by what they see. It’s encouraging to note how many local artists are moving onto an international stage after so many years of isolation. Our specialists, through their close links with these key players, are able to plug into these networks.

How does the secondary fine art market impact the art industry as a whole? How does Aspire aim to influence this?

The secondary market is important because it plays a key role in confirming worth. In the primary market, one gets exposure to young and upcoming, mid-career and established artists and can add their works to one’s collection. In the long term, when those works come to auction and attract serious collectors, high prices validate the market for those artists.

We will showcase great quality art and present exciting art auctions that affirm the strength of the art market and confirm the successes of top South African and international artists and galleries representing art from this continent.

Robert Hodgins South African 1920-2010 The Weather on the Streets 1991 oil on canvas signed, dated and inscribed with the title and medium on the reverse 90.5 x 122 cm, in four panels
Robert Hodgins South African 1920-2010
The Weather on the Streets, 1991. Oil on canvas. Signed, dated and inscribed with the title and medium on the reverse. 90.5 x 122 cm, in four panels

For new collectors, what are some of the points you advise on?                       

Always buy the best quality that you can afford. If a top artist is out of your price range, rather vie for a lower rung artist where you can afford a top quality example of their work. Consult the art specialists who are always happy to offer advice and can provide useful insights. Check the condition of the work and ask for condition reports. 

One tends to think of the secondary market as focusing on older works. How is contemporary art being incorporated into the secondary market?

If you look at the evolution of the secondary market historically, auctioneers traded exclusively in the works of the Old Masters. As they progressed and sold through the majority of the best stock, auctioneers were obliged to move on to new areas where there was still material to be found. So they came upon Impressionism, and so the cycle repeated itself until all that supply became depleted as top quality works went into permanent collections and would seldom appear on the open market again. This cycle continues until we reach the situation we have today where the big international auctioneering firms, to find a constant supply of work to be sold, began promoting and developing the contemporary art market.

Due to the very nature of the secondary market a work has often been purchased from a gallery or artist’s studio, been treasured in a home or collection for many years, and remains off the market for between 20-30 years on average. Consequently, it stands to reason that the secondary market trades predominantly in higher value works of a certain age. 

William Kentridge b.1955 South Africa Untitled (From Deluge Series) 1990 charcoal and pastel on paper signed and dated 119.5 by 83cm
William Kentridge b.1955 South Africa
Untitled (From Deluge Series), 1990.Charcoal and pastel on paper. Signed and dated. 119.5 by 83cm

As custodians of the secondary market, you play a key role in determining the value of artworks. What is this based on? Is there a categorical formula that you use?

There is no formula. There is however a track record and history of prices achieved on the public secondary market and this is our benchmark measure to revalue similar works by a specific artist, on the day, for an appropriate current market value. Our methodology is based on precedent and is an estimation of a value range from low to high. This gives the buyer a guide of what an artwork is realistically likely to fetch on the day. However, should a work be extremely rare or desirable, and many people are interested in adding it to their collection, this competition to acquire the work causes a resetting of the value and, in some instances, record prices. This is the origin of the belief that at auction it is generally the market that decides the true value of an artwork.

Anything else you would like to add?

If you are interested in knowing the value of your artworks, or would simply like to discuss your acquisitions or de-acquisitions strategy, please feel free to contact us at your leisure for a cost- and commitment-free valuation.

Aspire Art Auctions launches with a live auction in Johannesburg on 31 October 2016 and will also present an online auction platform.

MJ and Ruarc in front of offices 1 (1)

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