Moriri 2, 2013. Artist: Maki Mashigo

A reader of this blog asked, a few weeks ago, how individual works of art are valued. I gave an intuitive answer, based on my wanderings through the art circuit, but I must admit that the economist in me was not satisfied with my answer. Last Sunday, at the Turbine Hall Art Fair, I attended a talk by the art dealer Warren Siebrits which brought me a step closer to a satisfactory answer though I won’t be building a workable quantitative model anytime soon.

Warren presented some variables which determine the value of a work of art. The reputation of the artist matters. This can be discerned from critical writing about their work, their education (including informal education I would argue) and the opinions of their peers. The artist’s sphere of influence also has to be considered. In a small market such as ours, Warren argued, it’s important to consider the artist’s regional, national and international footprint. William Kentridge is probably our most distinguished art export. But there are others including young artists such as Lolo Veleko whose work I saw exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem last year. 

It is also important to compare local prices to international prices. An equivalent amount spent on an artist in another market may yield greater gains over time. It also crucial to form a view as to whether an artwork is overvalued or not. A small market may be susceptible to bubbles.

The value of an art piece also depends on its medium and period. There will be a period during an artist’s life that she produces her most compelling work. And there will be a medium that an artist excels in. 

Like in other creative industries, fakes are ever-present in the visual art market. It is thus prudent to establish the provenance of work before purchasing it.

Warren sees art valuation as a question of experience, instinct and passion. Dealers and auctioneers, who may have some of these traits, are useful to establish price in the art market.

After this talk, I decided to heed my instinct and bought a piece by Maki Mashigo titled Moriri from a gallery called Fried Contemporary. It deals with the politics surrounding black women’s hair. The central element of the piece is  a photograph of a black woman with natural hair. It is obscured by strands of natural and synthetic hair that are pasted on to the photograph. Icky and thought-provoking all at once.

Other art works that caught my eye at the Turbine Hall Art Fair include Damien Schumann’s photographs which include a handwritten message by the subjects captured in the work. This is refreshing given the ease at which the power relation between artist and subject can be viewed as exploitative, especially when the lens is turned on vulnerable individuals such as the economically disadvantaged or members of marginalised communities. There was also the colourful print of an abstract painting by Wopko Jensma which already spotted a red sticker by the time I got round to it. I have a bias towards photography so this would have been welcome diversification in my collection. A haunting image of Brenda Fassie taken by Sally Shorkend has been on my mind. It served as cover art for a story in the Mail and Guardian about the making of the hit Weekend Special, a development that has confirmed the work’s potential status as the iconic image of Brenda Fassie for future generations.

As the gallerists packed up their stands, I inadvertently became part of a heartfelt debate that almost became a screaming match. It was between two prominent faces in the Jozi art circle, and it reminded me that this is a small market that has yet to shed its provincialism and the baggage of history. I salute the Turbine Hall Art Fair for trying to broaden the audience and to start new conversations about local art.

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