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40 Under 40 Africa

How Strauss & Co became the global leader for South African art at auction

7 September 2020

Introducing Strauss & Co, South Africa’s leading fine art auction house and Apollo’s partner for the Apollo 40 Under 40 Africa.

Auction houses often like to talk of marquee sales, but few can claim the term like Strauss & Co. In 2016, the company invited the distinguished South African artist and art historian Professor Karel Nel to give a public lecture on a group of seminal works by Alexis Preller in Strauss & Co’s Johannesburg saleroom, which at the time could seat around 130. On the day of the lecture, the RSVPs began to overwhelm them; Susie Goodman, executive director of the company, describes her nervous anticipation of the impending ‘stampede’. At the eleventh hour, a grand tent was erected in the car park to accommodate the hundreds eager to hear Nel speak. ‘It was packed to the rafters,’ Goodman says. ‘We wanted to have a party afterwards.’

It’s a story typical of a company that takes a big-tent approach to virtually everything it does. Strauss & Co regularly hosts non-selling historical exhibitions in its salerooms in Johannesburg and Cape Town, while in recent years it has become involved with the South African pavilion at Venice, and currently sponsors a Harare-based prize for emerging artists across the continent. During lockdown, the company has created a series of online lectures shining a light on the history of museums in South Africa. For Goodman, ‘We go above and beyond the usual work of an auction house’, seeing it as a duty to drive art-historical education and engagement in South Africa.

Strauss & Co was founded in 2008 by Dr Conrad Strauss and Elisabeth Bradley, along with Sotheby’s veteran and South African art expert Stephan Welz. They hosted their first sale of modern and contemporary South African art and decorative arts in 2009. In the early years, the focus was primarily on early 20th-century art, and Strauss achieved major prices for the likes of market staples Irma Stern and Anton van Wouw. In 2015, the businessman and philanthropist Frank Kilbourn took the reins, bringing extensive business experience and art connoisseurship to bear. The company introduced stand-alone contemporary art auctions in 2018 after a string of successes in this sector such as the major coup of 2013, when an untitled work by Jane Alexander sold for R5.5m. Bina Genovese, joint managing director in Strauss & Co’s Cape Town office, describes this as ‘the highest price [at the time] by far for a contemporary work sold in South Africa at auction’. Strauss & Co also began to auction South African fine wine in 2019.

The company’s footprint has doubled – sales now regularly take in R300m–R320m (£13.6m–£14.5m) – and the last year has seen world records for young artists such as Jake Aikman and Athi-Patra Ruga: ‘We’ve played an enormous role in building a secondary market for our contemporary artists’, Genovese says, ‘and that’s been very rewarding. Collectors need to know that the secondary market is solid. We’ve watched many of our major collectors of modern and post-war art move onto contemporary art.’ In its upcoming NORTH/SOUTH sale (8–12 November), the company will offer 75 works from the Tasso Foundation Collection of Important South African art; assembled over the course of two decades by the renowned wine and olive-oil producer Giulio Bertrand, the collection spans the history of modern South African art, from Irma Stern to William Kentridge. It is the latest in a string of prestigious single-owner collections handled by the company.

A central part of the company’s mission remains boosting not only prices for 20th-century artworks, but supporting historical research and engagement. Last year, specialist Dr Alastair Meredith arranged a public exhibition as part of Art Week Joburg exploring modernist art from the countries neighbouring South Africa, such as Mozambique and Zimbabwe, while the auction house has also done much to promote post-war South African artists such as Gerard Sekoto and George Pemba. Meredith explains that, partly owing to the cultural embargo during apartheid, there are ‘two generations of South African artists who have been “overlooked” internationally. It’s a long-term project, but that’s something we’re desperate to change,’ he says. ‘So many of these artists would fit comfortably in British institutions.’ The market for this work has become stronger in recent years; in July, a street scene by Sekoto sold for R2.8m.

The company has been instrumental in expanding the global collector base for modern and contemporary art from South Africa, building upon the worldwide surge of interest in African art in the past few years and the success of private museums such as Zeitz MOCAA and the Norval Foundation. As Goodman explains: ‘We used to say that overseas we primarily sold South African art to all the expats sitting in boroughs in London, and in nooks and crannies of Australia – but we’re beyond that now; we’re selling to people from all over the world who are interested in the subject of art from the continent.’

Undeterred in recent months by the strict lockdown in South Africa, the company has reimagined its live sales as virtual live sales, with an auctioneer in the saleroom and the proceedings live-streamed to collectors and viewers across the world, watching from home and bidding in real-time. In the July sale, a bushveld scene from 1953 by Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, the quintessential painter of the South African landscape, sold for R10.2m – the latest in a string of strong prices recently for this painter whom Strauss & Co has been instrumental in introducing to a younger generation of collectors. In 2016, Pierneef’s first major institutional survey exhibition in more than three decades was held at Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg, curated by Strauss & Co’s senior art specialist Wilhelm van Rensburg. It’s another example of the commitment to research and engagement that drives the team at Strauss & Co. ‘We’ve learned some extraordinary things over the years,’ Goodman says. ‘And telling these stories has been, and continues to be, hugely exciting.’

For more information, visit the Strauss & Co website.