Ruarc Peffers with 'Profile Figures' by Alexis Preller, which achieved over R7-million at the inaugural Aspire auction
Ruarc Peffers with 'Profile Figures' by Alexis Preller, which achieved over R7-million at the inaugural Aspire auction

How does Aspire differ from other auction houses? We are committed to the presentation of significant art that is critically engaged — displayed and presented in the most appropriate and high-quality setting at every level. By handling a much smaller number of works on each sale, we are able to give considerably more attention to each individual work — in the way it is presented in our catalogue, the way we display works at our pre-sale exhibitions, and the general level of research and specialization that is allocated to every work that we handle. We also represent the longest combined experience in the secondary market, which means we arguably have the best knowledge of the art and artists we deal with, as well as the best sense of the global art world in which we function.

Who is involved? Brian Joffe, Adrian Gore and Kevin Handelsman fund the business, while Mary-Jane Darroll and I are the founding directors. We are complemented by Emma Bedford who heads up our Cape Town office, and Jacqui Carney as the core team who run the business. More recently, Josephine Higgins joined us while Rafael Powell and Zama Phakhati are doing internships with us.

What personality type do you need to become an auctioneer? I think adequate mental arithmetic helps, and a sense of humour is always beneficial, especially when there is a lull in the room. A thorough knowledge, sincere connection with and interest in the things you sell, and a desire to support and develop the market in which you function is imperative to achieve success in this industry.

Aspire Art Auctions
Aspire Art Auctions

Some highlights from your first auction? There were numerous highlights from our inaugural Johannesburg auction — the Alexis Preller titled Profile Figures (Mirrored Image), which achieved over R7-million is an obvious example, as was the success we achieved with JH Pierneef, Hugo Naudé, Robert Hodgins, Erik Laubscher, William Kentridge, Penny Siopis and many others. We set new auction records for David Koloane, Diane Victor, David Goldblatt, Peter Schütz and more, while the most encouraging, for me, was to see the huge interest we generated in younger artists such as Athi-Patra Ruga, Pieter Hugo, Ed Young, Dan Halter, Wim Botha and the strong prices achieved for their work.

There has been a shift in the market. In the past, older ‘master’ works seemed to attract higher bids, with contemporary works often falling short of perceived values. We see, however, that the interest in contemporary works is swinging and some healthy prices are being obtained (Athi-Patra Ruga's work on your auction for example). What do you think has caused this shift, or do you think it’s all about timing and who attends the auction? I think there is a natural progression amongst collectors — the next generation is not inclined to collect the same work, with the same aesthetic, as the previous generation. From our own points of view, few people that I know of want to have the same styling for their home, say, as their parents had, nor do they want to adorn their walls with the same art they saw in their parents’ and their parents’ friend’s homes. Consequently, each generation is inclined to collect the work that is most representative of their generation, with their own socio-political and economic conditions, and their own style and aesthetic sensibilities imbued therein.

When you look at global markets, some asset classes do better than others. Classic cars for example have outshone all and indexes show that the art segment is currently in negative territory (apart from the high-end rare works). What is the business of art scene like locally? At Aspire we endeavor to handle only top-quality works. Whether or not the pricing structure and value system around a particular artwork is at the highest level, we concentrate on the quality of the art, and in years to come will see how this focus has promoted the best acquisitions. If you consider the Alexis Preller, Walter Battiss or Stanley Pinker markets 10-15 years ago, certainly in the late 90s, one could barely give away their works at auction. However, the few astute collectors who identified the quality and relevance of their work all those years ago are today capitalizing on their smart acquisitions. We have a similar approach and believe that we represent the most collectible art from the past centuries, as well as the best forward-looking art representing the coming century. Our commitment is to present the best art in the best setting, and through a consistent process of education and development, we believe this art will develop in value as the industry increasingly develops an appreciation for the quality inherent in it.

The submissions for your first auction seemed quite diverse. Do you plan to have more focused auctions in future? As an auctioneering firm, our collection is prescribed by what works are made available to us by the various sellers who are willing to consign. The only real screening process that we can feasibly implement is to use quality as the arbitrating guideline.

Where do most works come from? Dealers, collectors, deceased estates? The overwhelming majority comes from private collectors, though dealers, estates and, occasionally, corporates are also part of the ambit. Historically, as the story goes, auctioneers always garnered their business from “the 3 D’s” — death, divorce and debt. Though this is a slightly macabre explanation, it does hold some truth. To that list I would be inclined to add dealers and de-acquisitions.

Key pieces in your own collection and why? Hard to say — I love all my art though I have a wide variety of medium, quality and value. I have a beautiful painting by Georgina Gratrix, which I love; a photograph by Greg Marinovich from his Bang-Bang Club days, which I also love; an exquisite Cecil Skotnes print published by Egon Guenther; and various others. It’s impossible to isolate one — it’s like asking a parent to choose their favourite child!

What would you like to acquire next? Sadly, my tastes and my budget are dramatically out of sync — but I would love to own a Nicholas Hlobo, or a Kyle Morland, a Moshekwa Langa, Turiya Magadlela…my Christmas list is long!


Aspire Art Auctions, Illovo Edge, Building 3, Ground Floor, Harries Road, Illovo, Johannesburg, 011 243 5243

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