Chairperson’s Report

23 Feb 2023

Looking back on 2022, it is hard to ignore the happy return to socialising and personal exchange among collectors and devotees of art, wine and decorative collectables after two years of sheltering from the pandemic. The year started nervously, but by February it was clear that the dark clouds of the 2020-21 pandemic were lifting.

Looking back on 2022, it is hard to ignore the happy return to socialising and personal exchange among collectors and devotees of art, wine and decorative collectables after two years of sheltering from the pandemic. The year started nervously, but by February it was clear that the dark clouds of the 2020-21 pandemic were lifting. 

Responding to this positive news, in February Strauss & Co hosted an inspiring exhibition of world-class modern and contemporary African art at Welgemeend in Cape Town. Timed to coincide with the Investec Cape Town Art Fair, the exhibition Giving Direction: Figuration, Past and Present provided an opportunity for clients, friends and supporters to gather to celebrate renewal after two disruptive years.

Renewal is not a sudden thing. Strauss & Co learnt many lessons during the Covid-19 pandemic, chief among them the value of committed staff and efficient technology. Strauss & Co’s digital journey preceded the abrupt changes to global trade wrought by the pandemic. Anticipation and incremental changes enabled Strauss & Co to thrive during the pandemic. 

In 2022 we continued to adapt, innovate and change in order to better serve our clients and reach new international audiences. One striking example of Strauss & Co’s new digital reach was the sale, in November 2022, of Irma Stern’s 1940 portrait African Woman for R5 600 000 ($327 417) to a new client from Asia. 

In many respects, 2022 was a year of internal transition for Strauss & Co. Capital was committed to modernising the organisational structure of the company and to further updating its technology. Strategic staff were hired, and existing staff redeployed to better suit their competencies and career aspirations within the company. The physical distance between the Cape Town and Johannesburg offices was gapped. The Cape Town office also moved into new, larger premises with exhibition facilities, ready to start afresh in 2023. A revitalised sense of mission has been achieved. 

These internal developments are largely invisible to our clients, but they are central to ensuring that Strauss & Co remains an agile, client-centric and results-orientated auction house.

For collectors, 2022 was a year of opportunity and challenge. It broadly remains a buyer’s market, in large part due to turbulent macroeconomic circumstances and their impacts on liquidity. Political turmoil and infrastructure challenges remain a stark theme of doing business in South Africa. Globally, China’s longer than anticipated lockdown coupled with an unexpected war in Ukraine caused major business disruption. Interest rate hikes and the mounting costs of energy added to the difficulties of doing business in 2022. 

Exceeding expectations, no matter what, has always been the Strauss & Co way.

This drive is reflected in our overall performance for 2022. Strauss & Co sold 6381 lots at 55 auction sessions held in 2022, earning a total income of R354 million ($20.8 million). This result is hugely creditable given that in 2021 we earned R356 million ($20.9 million) from the sale of over 8 500 lots, the largest volume ever traded in a single year by the company.

We had to work really hard to achieve this positive outcome. How did we do it? Focus. Particular attention was given to the form and content of Strauss & Co’s four marquee live-virtual auctions, as well as the quota of monthly online-only auctions. Auctions were carefully curated and we expanded our standalone sales devoted to specific artists and media. 

Our strong emphasis on curation yielded positive results. Strauss & Co hosted nine “white glove” auctions in which 100% of the lots on offer sold. The wine department excelled, scoring eight perfect sales, disproving early criticisms of Strauss & Co’s foray into collectable wines.

It was immensely gratifying to see all 140 works in the first-ever auction entirely devoted to Irma Stern sell. The outcome of this sale was a wonderful celebration of a great artist and affirmed the value of modernist South African art as a bankable asset. It was especially pleasing to see a third of the works in this landmark sale go to new clients. 

Strauss & Co presented four single-artists auctions in 2022, including standalone sales for Robert Hodgins, William Kentridge and J. H. Pierneef. The depth of interest in Pierneef, one of our Old Masters, is remarkable. New buyers accounted for roughly half of the successful bidders. The bulk of the people placing bids were aged between 40 and 59, which is very encouraging.

Strauss & Co is a guardian for blue-chip artists but recognises the importance of affirming undervalued South African artists. In April, we drew attention to the work of George Pemba in a sale. Other artists spotlighted for attention throughout 2022 included Albert Adams, Gregoire Boonzaier, Josephine Ghesa, Kate Gottgens, Job Kekana, Sipho Ndlovu, Fred Schimmel, Simon Stone, Alfred Thoba and Vladimir Tretchikoff. These focuses are key to ensuring that the contributions of these important artists are not forgotten.

In November, Strauss & Co successfully hosted a sale of 300 lots assembled by the art dealer and collector Dr Matthys Strydom. Matthys was a true connoisseur of art and an important mentor in my own journey as a collector. Much like Louis Schachat, whose legacy was celebrated in a Strauss & Co-sponsored exhibition titled Homage: Erken/Verken at Welgemeend during August Art Month, Matthys was unafraid to look laterally and support artists he believed in. It was satisfying to see collectors bid premium prices for lesser-celebrated – but no less important – artists such as Hardy Botha, Claude Bouscharain, Carl Büchner, George Ramagaga, Olivia Scholnick and Eben van der Merwe during the sale of the Matthys Strydom Family Collection.

Southern African artists hold roughly half the market share of the total auction sales by African artists, according to a report by London-based analytics firm ArtTactic. The report further revealed that Strauss & Co is South Africa’s largest auction house, accounting for 57% of the Southern African auction market from 2016 to 2021. It also reported that Strauss & Co is the leading auction house for works by William Kentridge.

Taking this positive message globally has been a priority for Strauss & Co. The company was the lead sponsor of the African Art in Venice Forum, a satellite event at the 2022 Venice Biennale. We also shared in the joy of William Kentridge’s auspicious survey exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts by hosting a lecture series and two walkabouts of the exhibition for collectors in London.

Strauss & Co is uniquely positioned as an auction house rooted in Africa. In a bid to underscore its commitment to art from the African continent, Strauss & Co launched a fortnightly news digest titled African Art Business Newsletter. This project forms part of a larger strategic initiative to diversify its portfolio to include modern and contemporary art from other parts of the continent.

In February 2023, Strauss & Co will launch a new live auction focussed on pan-African art. Titled Curatorial Voices: Modern and Contemporary Art from Africa, this curated auction will feature works by modernist pioneers and contemporary trailblazers chosen by five curators from important art centres across the continent.

This year we bid farewell to Vanessa Phillips. “VP”, as she is affectionately known, has been an indomitable presence at Strauss & Co since its beginnings in 2009 and an overall force for good. Vanessa has always led by example. Her wide range of expertise, commitment to excellence and work ethic underscore what it takes to grow and thrive in the auction field. After nearly five decades, Vanessa has decided to retire. We thank her for her immense contribution and will treasure her legacy. Her association with Strauss & Co will however continue, as will her presence at important public events in 2023. 

These include two exhibitions, first in Cape Town and then Johannesburg, to mark the publication of a catalogue raisonné for the sculptures of Sydney Kumalo and Ezrom Legae by authors Gavin Watkins and Charles Skinner. Strauss & Co, guided by Vanessa, is the chief sponsor of this book. 

The decision to sponsor this ambitious project, and many others, is founded on a simple but steadfast premise. We relish our role as co-custodian of pioneering Southern African artists and love engaging with clients and sharing in their passion for art and wine. It is part of our DNA as a company.

I would like to end by expressing our deep appreciation to all our employees and suppliers for their enthusiasm, commitment and passion for the business, for always looking for ways to become better and smarter, to go the extra mile.

Finally, on behalf of the directors and staff, my sincere thanks and appreciation go to our clients for their on-going support and feedback. May 2023 be a rewarding year for all of us.

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