Leading auction house – Market-maker for art auction industry

Collecting and selling art is a reciprocal relationship. Auction houses like Strauss & Co are instrumental in assisting individuals and companies in selling their assets to access quick liquidity.

“Collecting is a journey,” says Frank Kilbourn, Executive Chairperson of South Africa’s leading auction house Strauss & Co. It typically starts with curiosity and with the benefit of research and good advice, it can also mature into a rewarding pursuit.

Collecting and selling art is also a reciprocal relationship. Trust and an impeccable track record lays down the foundation between an art auction house and its clients – whether they are entrusting their loved one’s estate to the company for sale, or browsing for a special piece of art to expand their collection. “Numbers are important in quantifying the meaning and outcome of this journey and the bottom line almost always matters.  “However, the relationships forged by the decision to embark on a collecting journey are more important. They are often life-changing, and we are grateful for and proud of the role we have been able to play in our clients’ collecting journeys,” Kilbourn continues.

In the past two difficult years, the Covid-19 pandemic has desiccated the income of many households. Auction houses like Strauss & Co have been instrumental in assisting individuals and companies sell their assets to access quick liquidity. Nevertheless, parting with a treasured artwork or family collection spanning many years can be an emotional undertaking. Understandably, clients are not only seeking the best price for their assets, but also a team of auction professionals and art specialists with impeccable connections and knowledge, who can ensure that the legacy of their assets lives on through the right buyers.   In the past two years, Strauss & Co have emerged head and shoulders above their competitors, underscoring their status as a market-maker and trailblazer in the South African secondary art market.


The numbers speak for themselves
In the 2021 calendar year, Strauss & Co achieved a record turnover of R356.3 million. “In 2021 we handled over 8 500 lots. This is an extraordinary volume for a small business with less than 50 permanent staff. We are very proud of this outcome, more so because this brisk trade provided our valued clients with liquidity when market conditions required it,” says Kilbourn.

The auction house’s record number of white-glove auctions and sessions in 2021 – five in all – affirm the company’s success. In 2021 Strauss & Co held its first-of-its-kind auction singularly committed to one artist, Pierneef, which saw all 69 lots sell. The sale earned a remarkable R24.5 million in turnover. This year Pierneef again affirmed his status as a South African modernist darling among collectors in the second sale dedicated to him titled “JH Pierneef: En Route.” The career-spanning sale saw all but one lot find a buyer and achieved a total of R20 million. “The strong results produced by this much-anticipated follow-up to our 2021 single-artist auction underscore the importance of asset class and brand,” says Susie Goodman, a managing executive at Strauss & Co. “

Generous CSI investment
“Strauss & Co is in essence a market maker, but we recognise that sales are only a part of the role we perform within the larger art ecosystem we form part of,” says Kilbourn. For the company to flourish as a business, the art ecosystem must also thrive.

Strauss & Co invests heavily in education and supporting the production of curated non-commercial exhibitions. In 2021 they hosted Social Stances, an exhibition on Robert Hodgins and George Pemba’s work at their Johannesburg gallery. This year’s Dream Invisible Connections, offered audiences a rare opportunity to view a large range of works by leading South African contemporary artist, Mary Sibande and Dorothy Kay.

The company also affirmed its commitment to being a good corporate citizen by supporting developmental art prizes, like the Cassirer Welz Award, an annual award presented to an artist under the age of 35 working in painting, drawing or sculpture. “Strauss & Co is committed to producing vibrant and relevant educational content as part of its social obligation to the arts sector,” says Goodman. “It is even more imperative that we support the arts in these difficult times and bring people together to engage and learn.”

Connoisseurs of the industry as their clients
“It was a bittersweet pleasure and privilege to handle South African art doyen, writer and collector Porf Leon Strydom’s estate,” says Kilbourn. “We spent many happy hours in the Strydom Gallery in George, learning not only about art but also about ourselves and the privilege and excitement of living with art.” Last year Prof Strydom succumbed to Covid-19. Along with the David Hall Collection of Linn Ware, a highly collectable South African pottery mark, the Strydom Collection realised a combined total of over R10 million.

In April last year Peter and Della Jerling’s collection of blue and white “Kraak” p orcelain, saw all 34 lots find buyers. The Jerlings were the descendants of the first free burghers to settle east of the Keurbooms River, and their porcelain collection was the expression of a lifelong interest in collecting.  “It was with great sorrow that Peter and Della’s two sons parted with their parents’ collection. It was a central part of their home while growing up. However, their sadness is offset by the knowledge that these items were acquired by discriminating collectors who share the same deep love and interest in historical Chinese porcelain,” said Vanessa Phillips, head of the decorative arts department.

On the forefront of cutting-edge technology
The migration of the art market into the virtual sphere of the Internet is now a reality on all five continents, almost relegating the need for physical auction rooms to history, according to the most recent Art Market Report, released in March. The report states that live online sales by auction houses increased 720% worldwide over the two years of the COVID pandemic. This level of growth was previously anticipated for 2025-2027.

The growth in online art sales also expanded to South African shores, and was readily adopted by Strauss & Co resulting in a significant growth over the past few years.

“We are very proud that we sold more items than ever before,” says Frank Kilbourn. “However, it was clear to us in 2021 that catering to an expanding international client base requires significant investment in logistics, infrastructure, human resources and service delivery. Our investments in technology and people enabled us to have a more comprehensive programme than ever before,” says Kilbourn.  The South African art market has weathered difficult past few years. Notwithstanding the headwinds, collectors have continued to pursue their passion with focus and commitment.  “This is immensely gratifying, and I read it as a clear indication of the continued vibrancy of the market for art, design and wine in this country, notwithstanding the social and economic stresses,” Kilbourn concludes.



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