Foreign buyers flock to Cape Town's booming art scene

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Collectors from America and Europe are scouring Cape Town’s booming art scene in search of deals as diverse as an expressive oil painting by South Africa’s Irma Stern or a sculpture assembled from bottle caps by Ghana’s El Anatsui.

Dozens of venues, including the Association of Visual Arts Gallery and the converted grain silos of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA), are catering to aficionados seeking a good investment as well as the general public.

At a packed auction on Monday, bidding reached new highs as collectors phoning in from as far away as Chile and Canada competed against each other and the audience.

“We sold approximately 106 million rands ($7.3 million) worth of art, including commission...which is a record for South Africa and for Africa as a continent,” said Frank Kilbourn, executive chairman of auction house Strauss and Co. “It bodes extremely well for the future of African and South African art.”

More than 600 lots were sold, and on offer were a wide range of items: from Chinese and Japanese ceramics to works of South African heavyweights Stern, Gerard Sekoto and Alexis Preller.

Stern’s paintings took the top three spots by value, with the highest bidder paying just over 20 million rand for portrait “Arab”. The painting, still in its original carved wooden frame, is a previously unrecorded portrait of an Omani nobleman from the court of the Sultanate of Zanzibar.

Kilbourn said local buyers snatched up Stern’s works, although there was strong competition from abroad.

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“We’ve got credible auction houses and a great gallery system and the world is now realizing that we’ve come of age,” he said. “It’s a great place to look at art and to buy art.”

The wide variety of contemporary works on offer include prints and drawings by South Africa’s William Kentridge, who has exhibited in New York and Paris, as well as the surreal canvasses of former prisoner-turned-artist Blessing Ngobeni.

The potential investment value of some of the continent’s historic art figures and a favorable dollar-rand exchange rate are also attracting foreign buyers, Kilbourn said, adding South Africa’s art market is valued at around 2-3 billion rand a year.

“Definitely, Americans and Europeans are the largest buyers of African art or South African art,” Darren Julien, chief executive of U.S-based Julien’s Auctions said.

“I’m confident the Chinese will be following soon after, as they generally pick up on hot collecting markets.”

The launch of Zeitz MOCAA last year in Cape Town, touted as the world’s largest contemporary African art museum, has helped pique interest in Africa’s rich artistic heritage.

“It becomes this experience the rest of the continent, an entry way,” said Precious Mhone, co-curator of a multi-disciplinary exhibition of African artists at MOCAA.

“There are all these spaces that speak to different forms of artistic practice and so having (this) only enriches the art scene in Cape Town.”

Reporting by Wendell Roelf; Editing by Alexandra Zavis and Marie-Louise Gumuchian