Collecting tastes change with time. Art auction houses refer to "segments" into which different types of art fall. These are usually defined by reference to a time period – so, "historical" work, in the South African market, usually dates to the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. "Modern" refers to twentieth-century art from the 1920s through to the 1970s, and "contemporary" from the 1980s to the present.

The categories are not completely accurate, and are in fact much more fluid than these definitions suggest, but they do reflect different tastes in collecting.

Strangely enough, South Africa’s most prominent and collectable artists, the only four to feature on the list of the Global 500 of successful artists at auction, are evenly split between the categories: one historical artist, one modern artist and two contemporary artists. Bottom of the list at number 329 is modern artist Irma Stern, whose work, mostly still lifes, had $5m of turnover at auction in 2017, and reached a top price of just over $1m.

Next up is historical landscape painter JH Pierneef, whose most famous works were painted between the late 1920s and mid-1930s. His work reached $5.3m in turnover in 2017, from 117 works traded.

The contemporary artists are higher up the list – next highest is Joburg-based William Kentridge at number 279, whose turnover of $6.2m comes from 144 lots.

Dutch-based SA artist Marlene Dumas is top of the South African artists collectors most want to buy, at number 121, with $16m in turnover for her work last year, and a highest price at auction of $4.1m. She has lived most of her life in Europe, and has a big international collector base. Both of these contemporary artists will see their reputations and prices grow in years to come as the contemporary market grows.

Collecting the work of Pierneef and Stern back when they were exhibiting artists would therefore have stood you, and your family, in very good stead now, with their markets having grown strongly through the late twentieth century.

But the difficult thing for any art collector is spotting which work to collect before it becomes an expensive investment, in order to maximise returns. Going with your passion and collecting work you love is the key, but knowledge about the artist, where they exhibit and how their career is progressing will help make an educated guess. This is why smart investment in art now is looking at the contemporary art field, the one in which Kentridge and Dumas stand out.

The year from June 2017 to June 2018 was one of significant growth for the South African contemporary market as a whole. Artprice puts the SA market at a very respectable 13th in its listing of the top 20 countries by turnover value in the segment, ahead of countries like India, Switzerland and Denmark. South Africa’s total by revenue in the year was just over $6m, or approximately R88m, for 1 494 sold lots in total.  This represents total market growth of 25%.

Marina Abramović, Golden Mask (2009)

knowledge about the artist, where they exhibit and how their career is progressing will help make an educated guess.

In global terms the market has grown 19% year on year, reaching a turnover value of $1.9 billion. Volumes of lots grew by 17% and their price index overall also grew, by 18.5%. As Artprice analyses, the 66 850 transactions recorded over the 12-month period around the world reflect an unprecedented level of activity on the global contemporary market. The number of auction transactions has increased five-and-a-half times since 2000/2001 while the segment’s total auction turnover has risen from $103 million to $1.9 billion. The average price of a successfully auctioned contemporary artwork has risen from $8 400 at the turn of the 21st century to $28 000 today, after peaking at $38 800 in 2013/2014. The number of transactions represents 14% of the total number of fine art auction transactions around the world, generating 12% of the world’s fine art auction turnover. Its share is now larger than both the Old Masters and the 19th century art segments, both in terms of turnover and transactions.

Since January 2000, the price index for contemporary art as a whole has increased cumulatively by 88%, compared with 85% for the S&P 500 US stock market index. Over 18 years, the two indices have posted roughly equivalent gains of 3.5% per year, on average, making contemporary art a very respectable investment asset class.

In the local market, Aspire Art Auctions has seen significant gains in its own dealings in the contemporary segment. With both local and international work the auction house has established a reputation as the go-to destination for ensuring the best prices are achieved for contemporary art.

In terms of international work sold at auction locally, Aspire sold a work by renowned Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović, Golden Mask (2009), for R1 477 840 in July last year. While not a record for the artist, the return is significant and demonstrates the contention that South African collectors are beginning to develop an outward-looking attitude. In a similar vein, Aspire achieved a local auction record of R130 944 for a work by well-travelled Cameroonian artist Pascale Marthine Tayou at the same auction, Das Kapital (1995), indicating the extent to which art from the rest of the African continent is growing in popularity worldwide.

In global terms the market has grown 19% year on year, reaching a turnover value of $1.9 billion.

In terms of South African contemporary art, collectors are increasingly looking for work by black South African artists which was unavailable in the apartheid era, and whose value has not yet been fully developed in the auction market. Aspire is the market leader for returns in this segment. A very important museum-quality work by Dumile Feni, Children Under Apartheid (1987), which had been repatriated from New York, sold in July last year for a world record amount of R1 200 320. Respected contemporary artist Moshekwa Langa saw his Mmatšie I sell for another South African record of R311 920 at the same auction. Having already sold a work by Athi-Patra Ruga, Convention…Procession…Elevation (2013), for a South African auction record of R477 456 in October 2016, Aspire followed up with the sale of a photograph by the artist, Night of the Long Knives III (2014) in March this year for R295 568. Ruga is currently enjoying his first major solo exhibition in the UK, at Somerset House in London, which was timed to open with the prestigious 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair.

To bring the collecting wheel for contemporary art full circle, Aspire has just achieved the world auction record for a work by the aforementioned William Kentridge. Drawing from Stereoscope (Double page, Soho in two rooms) (1999) sold for R6 600 400 in October.

These sales successes are not significant only for the auction house itself. They indicate the extent to which the South African auction market is maturing, and the ways in which collecting tastes are changing. There will always be a collecting market for established artists with a track record, but more and more younger collectors are looking at contemporary art for something they might invest in that will bring them substantial returns.

Since January 2000, the price index for contemporary art as a whole has increased cumulatively by 88%.

A very important museum-quality work by Dumile Feni, Children Under Apartheid (1987) sold in July last year for a world record amount of R1 200 320.