South Africa

The Artful Dodger: The ANC’s art investment game

By J Brooks Spector 16 January 2013

Art experts are utterly baffled, if not horrified, by the R3.7 million raised at an ANC fundraising auction for a painting of Nelson Mandela by an unknown artist. J BROOKS SPECTOR follows the valuation – and comes up with a not-so-surprising conclusion.

A few days ago, the media carried some incredulous reports about an auction held by the African National Congress that had raised some extraordinary amounts of money for the party – at a party. The idea, it seems, was that guests would buy ANC-themed artworks to help fill the party’s coffers – after the guests had paid thousands for the privilege of attending the Friday night dinner in Durban with party leaders. According to published reports, the haul from the auction came in at over R21 million. The apparent highlight of the evening was a winning R3.7 million bid by Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu – apparently on behalf of an anonymous “mining magnate” – to snag a painting of Nelson Mandela’s head and shoulders, posed in front of some rondavels and an aloe.

Media reports have been silent on whether the work’s artist, Sifiso Ngcobo, actually received any money for his work – or whether he simply donated it for the greater good – and presumably to position himself for future commissions and tenders for artworks for public buildings, cultural exchanges overseas or other sponsorships. Ngcobo says he spent less than three weeks creating the work auctioned for the price of a nice home in Johannesburg’s leafy northern suburbs.

Ngcobo is not one of South Africa’s major artists, at least not yet, anyway. His name is not listed in standard reference works on South African art, and leading art critics didn’t seem to recognise his name either. Based on what is admittedly a very slender web presence, Ngcobo does appear to have had exhibitions in Durban and he also participated in an artistic exchange programme set up between Durban and Leeds in the United Kingdom several years ago.

Ngcobo describes much of his artistic oeuvre as a kind of bas-relief – or as he calls it, 3-D art. Essentially, his technique is to build up layers of papier-mâché on a board in the shape dictated by his intended image, and then he paints over it to give depth to the images. Based on this web information, Ngcobo’s output “includes 3D paintings, abstract, African ethnic, etc, picture framing, glass decor and sand blasting, glass doors, coffee tables, trophies, headboards, pedestals, etc.” In other words, he’s an artistic jack-of-all-trades entrepreneur.

One has to have respect for this man. He is making a living in the creative sector; he’s obviously lined up some potent, powerful, well-connected friends; and now, he’s managed to get more free publicity for his work recently than any other South African artist has managed to achieve – except, of course, Brett Murray. Over time, into the future, this has to help his sales – whether it is for one of his bas-reliefs of national political heroes, for a coffee table or a headboard – or even a whole house-full of his furniture and artefacts. But, as the caption in the Sunday Times report on the auction asked, is this item that was bought and paid for actually art? And what is it really worth?

As far as its actual worth goes – veteran arts commentator Michael Coulson reminded that asking the intrinsic value of a particular piece of art is a lot like asking how long is a piece of string? The answer, of course, is that it depends. Mostly, it depends on what someone will want to pay for it, rather than the cost of the raw materials that go into it. This is rather different than the pricing mechanisms for commodities such as a loaf of bread or a ton of steel. The longer a piece of art hangs around, assuming critics, collectors and speculators embrace it, the more likely its price will increase, if for no other reason than there has been a longer period of time in which those people can contemplate its worth and talk up its value.

The skill of the creator obviously matters, but scarcity helps too. For example, there are only 34 extant works that are generally accepted to have been painted by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. If someone miraculously discovered one or two more hidden in the garret of an old Delft house, the prices of the others probably wouldn’t be affected appreciably simply because there has already been four centuries worth of critical and popular acclaim for the very small number of his works that have survived. Effectively the demand (and the price) for two more Vermeer works would, in economic terms, be called completely elastic.

While Rembrandt’s etchings are beloved, there are lots of them around. But, if a cache of hundreds more were suddenly uncovered in the basement of the Louvre, the market for Rembrandt etchings might register a brief, modest decline in prices in auctions that would immediately follow such a discovery. But, so many people would still be delighted to own a genuine work by the master now that if there were more to go around, they probably would all be snapped up at good prices. 

By contrast, no such processes have established anything remotely approaching a generally agreed valuation for Sifiso Ngcobo’s works.

Meanwhile, price ranges for works by well-known, highly regarded South African artists are generally much, much lower than Ngcobo’s R3.7 million portrait of Madiba. For example, small graphic works by the internationally respected, South African-born artist, Marlene Dumas, have recently been selling for around R30,000, although her oil paintings go for much more than that. Prices for Cecil Skotnes’s iconic painted and carved wood panels have been hitting the R150,000 mark, and some of Irma Stern’s paintings have been reaching R5 million and more. JF Pierneef works can fetch as much as R5 million, and paintings by Alexis Preller and Robert Hodgkins have now broken the million rand frontier as well. In fact, one Preller work recently went at auction for a remarkable R4.7 million.

And recent prices for some large-scale works by William Kentridge – a hardworking internationally-renowned artist who has had major exhibitions in the US, UK and elsewhere – have topped R500,000, while smaller sketches in local collections are getting valuations of around R150,000 or so, were they to go on auction or sale by a reputable dealer. Sculptures by two deceased South African sculptors, Sydney Khumalo and the late Ezrom Kgobokanyo Sebata Legae, can reach around R300,000 and R100,000 respectively; collages from the eagerly collected artist Jabulane Sam Nhlengethwa can easily reach R25,000, while his paintings and his large-scale, limited edition prints sell for more than that. But the key point is that all of these are (or were) creators with successful, lifelong track records – and, in many cases, significant international recognition.

As for Ngcobo’s work, one highly experienced art academic who specialises in contemporary South African work was, frankly, horrified after reading about that R3.7 million picture and its price tag, saying, “I think the portrait is more than just pedestrian and weak: it is utterly corny and completely hideous.” No beating around the bush there. Moreover, while the same expert was reluctant to simply call it “airport art” – partly because even airport art sometimes ends up even having some artistic merit, this particular painting, “does remind me of the worst kind of thing you would find in a curio shop. It astonishes me that anybody would pay R3.7 million for it, and I can only assume that those bidding did so without advice from anybody with experience and knowledge of the visual arts.”

But that just leads to the question of why the same party that hosted this auction would have egged on the suppression of Brett Murray’s Zuma portrait – even given its layers of meaning and its highly problematic content – on the one hand, while then placing a value on a work no reputable gallery would contemplate hanging, well beyond levels reached by all but the most exceptional of South African paintings. One art expert posed the question of whether the attendees and the sponsors of the party were somehow confusing the stature of the person portrayed in this painting with the worth of an artwork purporting to represent him. 

Given all of this, what might Ngcobo’s portrait actually be worth? Based on the works cited above, for the sake of argument, let us assign a generous value of around R100,000 for the painting, making it equivalent to a large-scale Nhlengethwa work, and about the same amount for the costs of framing, shipping, packing and handling this work onward to its destination. That’s R200,000 worth of conceivable value; but that leaves a cool R3.5million still to be accounted for. 

President Jacob Zuma told the crowd the night of the auction, “We’re not forcing people … you can support and be a supporter, but if you go beyond that and become a member, [and] if you’re a businessman, your business will multiply. Everything you touch will multiply. I’ve always said that a wise businessperson will support the ANC… because supporting the ANC means you’re investing very well in your business.” As a result, the purchaser was investing R3 million+ in his business that night. Together with the fact the bid came on behalf of an unnamed mining tycoon, it can be inferred someone calculated there was access worth at least R3 million to be garnered on the back of a painting. 

The party also seems to have been prepared to arrange for a second copy of the work that could then go to the next-highest bidder, National Federated Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Joe Hlongwane. As newly elected ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize told the gathering, Hlongwane’s bid was simply “too good A BID to allow to go to waste.” (Capitals by the editor.) This only underscores the commoditisation of Ngcobo’s work as a way to ease the pathways of communication. Or, as Michael Coulson points out, “overpaying for baubles is not uncommon at charity auctions. It never bears any relation to any underlying real market.” The question is, what benefits the giver thinks he is getting in exchange for his largesse.

But instead of simply filling the party’s treasury, imagine if the auction had also folded in a larger “giving back” social element into the proceedings. Say, for example, paralleling the kinds of things that often happen with similar events held around the world, a portion of monies raised were dedicated to helping a nationally regarded community arts education programme such as the Artists’ Proof Studios in downtown Johannesburg, the Bag Factory studios in Fordsburg, or the Tshwane-based Ifa Lethu cultural preservation and arts education programme. 

Rather than that rather over-the-top event with all those fat cats and top politicians in attendance, imagine the tangible impact of dedicating a half a million rand or so from the final takings for one of those organisations’ activities – and the living legacy such a spirit of giving back to the community in the name of the party could achieve – especially in these financially straitened times. Maybe not this time around, perhaps, but how about doing this the next time the hat is passed at one of these celebrity auctions. Share the wealth, comrades. DM

Read more:

  • Minister splurges R3.7 million on ANC art in the Sunday Times
  • R2.7m for portraits of ANC’s new top 6 at City Press
  • The South African Art Times: links to recent reports of recent sales and auctions
  • Modern African Art: a basic reading list – Southern/South Africa from the Smithsonian Institution

Photo: Ngcobo’s Mandela portrait that fetched R3.7 million at the ANC auction.


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