Annual Review 2019

Chairperson's Report

Milestone years are important in the life of any business. I am happy to report that in 2019, our tenth year of trading, Strauss & Co achieved a headline turnover of R319.4 million. This is our second best result since Strauss & Co started trading in 2009. It is a very credible performance, in my view, particularly in a challenging business environment. I attribute this success to a number of factors.

Over the past decade, Strauss & Co has handled a number of important works by South African masters, including Maggie Laubser, JH Pierneef, Alexis Preller, Gerard Sekoto and Irma Stern. Last year was no exception. Our March sale included three high-quality Stern portraits from her revered Zanzibar period as well as an important Preller work. Consigned from two noteworthy single-owner collections, the works inspired enthusiastic bidding that significantly contributed to the final sale tally of R107 million.

The result for our March sale was a historic moment for the company in its tenth year of business as it marked the first time a South Africa auction had ever grossed more than R100 million. This outstanding result was a major vote of confidence for Strauss & Co and an affirmation of the durability of the South African art market. The impressive single-lot results proved that even in difficult economic times there will be demand for high-quality works with impeccable provenance.

Another breakthrough event from 2019 took place at our contemporary art sale when a photograph by Athi-Patra Ruga sold for R1.7 million. The result was one of 23 new world records achieved at this specialist sale. Our aim when we launched the contemporary art sale in 2018 was to build new audiences and widen the base of collectors. I was delighted to see so many new bidders and first-time buyers at the 2019 sale. It confirms our decision to devote our energies to creating a standalone sale for this important category.

One noticeable trend in 2019 was the increased internationalisation of our sales, especially in the decorative arts segment. A high percentage of the buyers at our two annual decorative arts sales in Cape Town were from abroad. This is an important trend. Not only has it enabled Strauss & Co to grow its buyer base, it has also allowed the company to expand its presence outside of South Africa. This is a very positive development, one that we hope to consolidate and expand upon in future.

Strauss & Co confirmed its reputation for handling complex single-owner collections in a responsible and efficient manner in 2019. We brokered the sale of a number of important collections and estates, including the Sol Munitz Collection, Louis and Mavis Shill Collection, Peter and Regina Strack Collection, Dr JR and Mary Strong Collection, Dr Johan Bolt Collection, Andrew Newall Collection, Sonia Lapin Collection, Wolfgang Biederlack Estate, the Edoardo Villa Collection that formed part of the Aldo Carrara Estate, and a small selection from the Estate of the Late Erich Mayer. The sale of the contents of Harcroft House required its own dedicated sale. These high-quality collections are a testament to the connoisseurship of South African collectors.

A personal highlight from 2019 was the start of our fine wine auctions, a joint venture with online retailer Wine Cellar and sommelier Higgo Jacobs . The core premise for embarking on this new venture is simple: there is a significant mismatch between the quality of South African wines and the price of our wines, especially if compared with their peers internationally. As a result, there is an opportunity to acquire and invest in this vibrant market. I believe Strauss & Co has an important role to play, especially in bringing more transparency to the pricing of collectable wines. This is a long-term commitment for us. I firmly believe the fine wine auctions will play a substantial role in years to come in the fortunes of the company.

I was also encouraged by the coming of age of our online auctions in 2019. Since launching our first online sale in 2013 this platform has become a staple of our sales cycle. Easily accessed by collectors, it is a cost-efficient platform for high-volume sales. It also brings increased liquidity to the market. In the past year we have invested in upgrading our systems and processes to further streamline sales. This investment is paying off. We have seen a big increase in the number of participants.

Strauss & Co is committed to being an active corporate citizen. Professional development is an important area of focus. In 2018 we launched a bursary to encourage and support post-graduate studies in South Africa. The bursary is funded by 20% of the net proceeds of Strauss & Co's annual contemporary art sale. We announced our inaugural bursary recipients in 2019: Athenkosi Kwinana, Salomé le Roux and Arisha Maharaj. At the same time, we continued our sponsorship of the Cassirer Welz Award, which supports emerging artists. Past winners include Blessing Ngobeni, who is the 2020 Standard Bank Young Artist Award laureate for art, and Richard 'Specs' Ndimande, who now works at Strauss & Co. We also contributed to the new Emerging Painting Invitational Prize (EPI) for emerging African painters, launched in Harare, which is dedicated to supporting emerging contemporary painting and painters across the continent. Strauss & Co sponsored the first prize, which was won by Mozambican artist Nelly Guambe.

In 2019 we were involved in a number of initiatives aimed at supporting South Africa's vibrant art market. We presented exhibitions at the RMB Turbine Art Fair and at Latitudes Art Fair, both in Johannesburg, as well as supported two exhibitions at Art Month at Welgemeend in Cape Town. Our staff also presented informative talks, such as at Morkel House in Stellenbosch, amongst others. These activities form part of our deepening involvement in the art ecosystem that extended to sponsorship of the South African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017, part-sponsorship of the African Art Forum during the opening week of the Venice Biennale and support of various museums, including the Irma Stern Museum and Zeitz MOCAA. We are continually growing the scholarly weight of our lectures and catalogues, for example by publishing new research into artists such as Anton van Wouw and Sydney Kumalo, and we will continue these commitments in the year ahead. Strauss & Co is a sponsor of the 2020 Stellenbosch Triennale and the 2020 Toyota US Woordfees, as well as contributor to a forthcoming symposium on artist Ernest Mancoba at A4 Arts Foundation, Cape Town.

Looking ahead to the next ten years, Strauss & Co will continue to grow sustainably the market for contemporary art. We are positive about the African art market and are actively acquainting ourselves with developments elsewhere on the continent. We have been growing our networks and offerings, and expect our digital platform to play an increasingly prominent role here. We are excited by the contents of our forthcoming 2020 contemporary sale, which includes an important collection of pan-African artists. This sale sets the tone for Strauss & Co's journey into the year ahead.

Frank Kilbourn

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