Collecting art is an unusual activity in the modern world. It requires self-education, specialist knowledge, commitment and passion. It doesn’t, contrary to popular perception, require a lot of money, at least not to begin with. Many collectors buy pieces they like by paying off the gallery or artist overtime for the work they want.

Key to the process of putting a collection together is a love for the work you want to own.

Apart from the personal investment in individual works or artists, collecting art also has the benefit of promoting and sustaining cultural values and the heritage of a people. In South Africa’s case, this is doubly important because of the great imbalances caused by apartheid in how the nation understands and appreciates its own art. Many great black artists in South Africa’s history, especially in the twentieth century, were unfairly ignored or denied access to the education, social and artistic networks and institutional support that would have seen them become as successful and well-known as their privileged white counterparts.

Sadly, South Africa under apartheid is not alone in the overlooking and suppression of black artistic talent in society. The global art market, and in particular the major US and European markets, are also guilty of this imbalance of patronage and unequal distribution of wealth and reputation. A somewhat skewed impression is given by some of the spectacular prices achieved for individual works by black artists. In 2017, for example, the late US artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose prices have been rising exponentially, had one of his works, called Jim Crow, sell at auction for $17 680 936, having first sold in 1992 for $136 367 – a 130-time multiplication in value. This was dwarfed in 2018 when Japanese entrepreneur Yusaka Maezawa spent a historic $110.5 million on Basquiat’s punchy 1982 painting of a skull.

This was the highest-profile case in a recent flurry of high-profile market activity surrounding work by African American artists. Frieze magazine reports that this is being seen as an apparent indication that the history of neglect and discrimination is in the process of being corrected. As Frieze points out, so far this year, six of the 10 most expensive contemporary works to sell at auction have been by African American artists. The record paid for the Basquiat work is joined by the $21.1 million record price paid by the rapper and businessman Sean Combs, aka Diddy, for a work by another prominent African American artist, Kerry James Marshall, entitled Past Times (1997).

If we dig a little deeper, the reality of the situation, even in the better-resourced and more mature US market, is more complex. Art Price (www.artprice.com) points out that around $2.2 billion has been spent on work by African American artists at auction over the past 10 years – a mere 1.2 percent of the global auction market during the same period, which was $180 billion. Even more damning, auction sales of work by Basquiat account for $1.7 billion of the $2.2 billion total spend – a staggering 77 percent! Of the six contemporary works by African American artists in the top 10 sold so far this yecoar, four are by Basquiat. Indeed, 2018 marks the first time ever that African Americans other than him have made the list.

Apartheid’s exclusions meant that many black artists couldn’t even visit galleries in so-called white areas in the era of the Group Areas Act, let alone receive formal education and access to materials, networks and opportunities to grow and exhibit work.

With Basquiat excluded, the total combined auction value of work by African American artists is $460.8 million – just 0.26 percent of the global auction market. As the Frieze report points out, more money has been spent at auction during certain single evening sales of postwar and contemporary art in New York than on work by all African American artists over the past 10 years.


The same principle holds even more true for much art in the South African market. Apartheid’s exclusions meant that many black artists couldn’t even visit galleries in so-called white areas in the era of the Group Areas Act, let alone receive formal education and access to materials, networks and opportunities to grow and exhibit work.

One of the major tragedies for some of SA’s greatest artists was choosing or being forced into exile, like Gerard Sekoto, who spent most of his life in Paris. Though he died in relative poverty and obscurity in France, his top works now sell internationally for multimillion-rand prices. Perhaps the best known of these is his Song of the Pick (1948) which is in a corporate collection.

Sean Combs, aka Diddy, paid a $21.1 million record price for a work by another prominent African American artist, Kerry James Marshall, entitled Past Times (1997).

Despite many of these artists now fetching significant prices at auction in SA, not enough is being done by collectors and by art institutions to redress the balance of who gets represented in collections and in public exhibitions. But the fact that many of them are becoming more collectable is at least positive.

The works of some significant black South African artists have increased in value recently, such as Ephraim Ngatane, whose Township Children Playing in the Snow in Soweto (1966), fetched R560 000 in 2008, and Alfred Thoba, whose commemorative anti-apartheid work 1976 Riots fetched almost a million rand in 2012. Much remains to be done, but a major exhibition in Johannesburg at the Standard Bank Gallery entitled A Black Aesthetic: A View of South African Artists (1970 -1990) currently on show, is helping to redress the balance.

This reappraisal goes along with the strong identities already established in the contemporary market by artists such as Athi-Patra Ruga and artist-activist Zanele Muholi, both of whom are currently also gaining an international reputation.

Ephraim Ngatane
Township Children Playing in the Snow in Soweto 

1966

Mixed media on board 

74 x 99.5cm 

Sold for R560 000 in 2008.

Alfred Thoba
1976 Riots

Oil on board

138.5 x 156cm 

Sold for R913 480 in 2012.

Julian Motau
Village Scene 

1965

Oil on canvas

55 x 85cm

Sold for R60 500 in 2012.

Ezrom Legae
African Goat

Bronze

67.5cm

Sold for R685 110 in 2012.