CityLife Arts

The wealthy investing their money in art in middle of pandemic

By Edward Tsumele

We are in the middle of global pandemic which at the end of it all, will leave many countries’ economies battered, and most will find it hard to claw back into economic health. In the case of South Africa, Covid 19 has come at a time when the economy is not growing. In fact the economy is in a technical recession and therefore, it is expected that it is not going to be smooth sailing for government to nurse the economy back to good health when the worst is over.

However in the midst of uncertainties globally surrounding Covid 19 and its consequent devastation on the economies of the world, there is one sector that seems to be weathering the storm reasonably comfortable, and that is the art market.

The place to look for those signs of resilience of the art market, is the secondary market (auction sales), art fairs as well as the primary market (art galleries).

 Art sales facilitators such as art fairs, auction houses as well as art galleries, were with no doubt, disrupted markedly by the arrival of the Coronavirus pandemic.  Events that took many months, even years of planning and investment, were postponed and even cancelled altogether.

New ways of selling art had to be innovated, and that came in the form of the use of new technologies that in fact some of the auction houses, such as Aspire Fine Art Auctions, and Strauss &CO. in South Africa, and globally Sotheby, Christie’s and Phillip’s have been using in combination with live, physical on- site auctions, for some time now. 


Susie Goodman of Strauss &Co.

Ruarc Peffer of Aspire Fine Art Auctions


CityLife Arts  in a recent interview with Susie Goodman of Strauss &Co. and Ruarc Peffer of Aspire Fine Art Auctions, was told the two major art auction houses in South Africa dominating the contemporary art  market, have in fact been long using a combination of both online and offline, onsite trading before the arrival of the coronavirus, and when the pandemic struck the infrastructure was already in place and the conversion was smooth.

However when the coronavirus struck, unfortunately many  other art market facilitators had to innovate and innovate quickly in order to save jobs and remain in a profitable business position. That innovation came in the form of using new technologies, such as Zoom and 360 Degree angle to conduct live virtual auctions and for virtual exhibition viewing in galleries. And so far the results have been pleasing as art collectors in fact understood the imperative of the ‘new normal’ and are fast adapting to bidding virtually at auction sales and visiting art fairs virtually.

In South Africa the new kid on the block Latitudes Art Fair, an all-women owned entity launched last year in Johannesburg, was the first to declare that it was going ahead with the art fair this year by holding a virtual art fair. The results were so good that in fact it has become an on-going virtual art fair for the rest of the year, according to the organisers.

RMB Turbine Art Fair, which this year has turned eight, started giving access to art collectors to its virtual art fair this week, and will run this virtual art fair until September 2.  FNB Joburg Art Fair, the first art fair in South Africa, is also taking the virtual route this year.

 Strauss &Co. is currently running a live virtual art auction (27 August – 7 September) . Aspire Fine Art Auctions’ live virtual auction is penciled for September 3. 

While it is still early to suggest  the success of the virtual art market locally, as a complete picture of the art market will only be known after analising art sales figures from the current market activities, results from the overseas art markets, such as Christie’s, Sotheby and Phillip’s are encouraging.

 In fact their recent Summer art auctions have been hugely successful, in some cases performing spectacularly, irrespective of the effects of having to conduct live auctions virtually and the economies of many countries being affected negatively by the pandemic.

For example, Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981) at Sotheby’s June 29th sale, sold for $84.5 million, breaking a record for the artist. Bacon was however not the only one who sold well. A 1994 Lichtenstein sold for $46 million; and experts say this points to the fact that art collectors are putting their money in art during these times of uncertainties due to Covid 19, and also the fact that the future is positive for live virtual art sales as collectors seem to have warmed to the idea of buying art virtually. 

This method of trading in art, it seems, will be part of the global art market activity going forward, in combination with a live traditional on-site physical auction when the pandemic is no more a threat to public health.

And also the tendency for the wealthy classes to put their money in art to cushion it against a volatile financial and economic situation is not new, as the same thing happened in the 2008/2009 financial crisis, for example. Art investment has been known to be stable over the years, especially during financial volatility when other asset classes’ values could not hold.

Therefore this positive picture of the future is important, especially because the total global wealth held in art is projected to grow by $900 billion to $2.6 trillion by 2026, according to art market analysts.

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