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    FOR THE ART OF IT - FAIRLADY MARCH 2004
    Story by Gus Silber

    If you don't know much about art and you're not even sure what you like, it's never too late to start learning.

    It may be true that you don 't need to know much about airborne yeasts and secondary fermentation in order to be able to enjoy a good glass of Chardonnay. Whatever the vintage, the effects are likely to be the same. But when it comes to investing in the visual arts, you will feel a lot less remorseful if you forearm yourself with the knowledge required to lend weight to an emotional response. It is not enough to know what you like. You need to know why you like it, whether anyone else out there is likely to like it, and indeed, whether the artist actually intends you to like it. This is not just a question of learning to tell one 'ism ' from another. It is more a question of getting to know why art lends meaning to life, and how light and line and colour lend meaning to art. As always, the best source of this information is other people. Talk to collectors, read books, hang out at galleries, hobnob at the openings of exhibitions and, whatever you do, don 't drink too much free Chardonnay.

    Buy on the property principle
    As any real estate agent will tell you, it is better to buy a humble abode in a swish neighbourhood than a des res in the middle of a slum. The same principle applies to buying art: It is better to buy a small print or graphic by a Big Artist than a huge oil by someone whose critical acclaim is unlikely ever to match the scale of their canvas. Let us take William Kentridge, for example. A dark and brooding charcoal original by this titan of South African art is likely to set you back a minimum of R50 000,assuming a rich American doesn't beat you to it. But if you act quickly, you should be able to pick up a limited-edition lithograph by the same artist for a mere R10 000.So,set yourself a budget, buy what you can afford, and aim all the while to buy bigger and better. If it doesn't work out, you can always put your house on the market and buy a couple of Kentridges with the proceeds.

    Don 't just buy art that looks nice on your wall
    There is nothing inherently wrong with a watercolour of Table Mountain or a brightly coloured township scene or an oil of a buffalo ruminating alongside a baobab … as long as you don 't make the mistake of hanging it on your wall. Life is too short to gaze at a painting with no deeper layers than the pigment on its surface.

    Yes, it is nice to form a cosy relationship with at least some of the works in your collection, but the higher purpose of art has always been to shock and confront and disturb and challenge and confound. You won 't be able to call yourself a serious collector if you don 't own one or two paintings that you have to turn to face the wall when your maiden aunt comes to visit. No greater compliment can be paid to your taste than to have someone wrinkle their nose and say, 'Is that what I think it is?' or 'My five-year-old could have painted that.' Indeed, Madam, that is precisely the point. It 's a Picasso.

    Don 't buy art to match your décor
    If you do, you run the risk of turning your home into the lounge of the Holiday Inn, where 'art' is ordered by the metre to fill in the gaps between the wallpaper. Take your cue from the great art galleries of the world instead, where the walls are merely muted surfaces and the art itself is the décor.

    Try to buy from artists who are alive and well
    Everyone knows that Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life but that 'Sunflowers ' was sold for almost US$40 million when he was dead. The moral of this tale is that you can save a lot of money if you buy the right works by the right artists before the factory shuts down for good.

    Once it becomes clear that the seal has been put on an artist 's life and output, prices often soar to record levels, although they can also come tumbling down as eager sellers flood the market .The trick is to buy from artists when they are barely making a living, which also buys you the satisfaction of knowing that you might well be saving a modern-day Van Gogh from a miserable existence.

    Don 't be afraid to ask for a discount
    True, they are the product of a soul in agony or excelsis, wrought with an intensity and precision that draws a direct line between the Bushman in his cave and the artist in his Hout Bay apartment. But from the moment you haul out your cheque book, a work of art becomes a commodity, and you are fully entitled to ask for 10 percent off. Most dealers and gallery owners will not flinch to hear such a request and may even suggest it if they think you will become a regular patron.

    If you are the humming-and-hawing type of regular patron, you may even be allowed to take selected works home with you on appro, the theory being that the schlep of hauling them back to the gallery will prove greater than the fear that you really should have put the money into your bond.

    Don 't be too quick to scratch your nose at auctions
    An auction held by a reputable firm such as Sotheby 's or Christie 's can be a wonderful occasion at which to mill around, flip through a glossy catalogue, gauge the current value of artists on the rise and long-established, and bump into the kind of people who are enough to put you off collecting for life. But don't be intimidated. Take along a friendly expert, soak up the atmosphere and don 't be afraid to bid with discretion. Remember, if you find yourself the owner of a bargain that seems too good to be true, it probably is.

    Don 't hesitate to buy online
    It sounds crazy: Why would you want to spend good money on an artwork you haven 't even seen, except in the form of a com- pressed image on your computer screen? Well, for one thing, the overheads are lower. For another, you can wander around the gallery in your pyjamas. But the main reason to buy from a reputable online gallery is that your expectation, no matter how generous, is almost certain to be exceeded when the courier offloads the boxed and bubble-wrapped masterwork at your door. Ask about the money-back guarantee, just in case. The two best online galleries in South Africa are the Virtual Gallery (www.vgallery.co.za),which offers a superb collection of new discoveries and old favourites, and the Hout Bay Gallery (www.houtbaygallery.co.za),a fine showcase with a Western Cape bias.

    Make sure you get the real deal
    There is a famous cartoon of a self- satisfied patron of the arts showing off his latest acquisition to a friend. The friend gazes up, a somewhat pained expression on his face, and asks: 'Isn't Picasso supposed to be spelled with one "c"?'

    Avoid the costly embarrassment of such revelations by making sure you deal only with dealers who deal in the real deal. The art world is no stranger to art- works of dubious authenticity, the most recent example being the much-celebrated portfolio of an elder statesman whose vividly patterned shirts were thought to be the sole evidence of his artistic temperament until works of astonishing draughtsmanship and delicacy began to appear under his name.

    Forget about making money from your collection
    How much money are you likely to make from your well- advised, carefully considered ventures into the field of modern art investment? Here 's the answer you probably haven't been looking for: Nobody knows.

    Unlike other lovely-to-behold commodities, such as gold coins, Persian rugs and Chippendale couches, works of art are traded on a market of intangibles, where hype and trend and scandal can make all the difference between a 10-figure record and a below-reserve return to disappointed sender.

    A work of art, on its own, is worth nothing until it is sold – which is why great works are often described as 'priceless'. Of course, many people do make a handsome living from trading in art, but they tend to be dealers who sell to investors. Unless you are prepared to dabble in that league, take heart from the knowledge that your real return on investment will be the joy of browsing around your own private gallery, the wonder of trying to peer inside an artist's soul, and the quiet glow of pride that comes from knowing that it is thanks to people like you that artists are able to make art. If you are lucky enough to earn any percentage on top of that, accept it with gratitude and use it to buy another painting.

    10 Artists Worth Collecting
    You can 't go wrong if you buy a good work or two by these internationally sought-after South African art icons:

    • William Kentridge: gloomy, allegorical masterworks of charcoal and collage
    • Willie Bester: township vignettes with an edge
    • Norman Catherine: cartoon monsters from a rainbow-coloured nightmare
    • Robert Hodgins: blobs and splodges that turn out to be people
    • Zwelethu Mthethwa: vivid, insightful portraits in pastel or photos
    • Paul du Toit: gleeful bursts of solid line and infantile colour
    • Esther Mahlangu: a contemporary take on Ndebele tradition
    • Richard Scott: 'Naïve meets Pop'
    • Brett Murray: Bart Simpson goes to Africa
    • David Koloane: feverish visions from the inner city
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