When auctioneer Stephan Welz called out R1 million for Robert Hodgins’ Three figures and a crowd a woman collapsed.
The immediate unspoken fear was that she had died. It may be the surprise of a Hodgins painting fetching one million rand that overwhelmed her. Or it could have been that the Wits Art Museum’s basement was too warm and too crowded for the frail woman. Or she may have been playing a role in a perfectly staged piece of theatre intended to deepen the drama of the evening.
Whatever the reason for the woman’s collapse, bidding was interrupted and Marie Claire’s elegant and usually composed editor, Aspasia Karras, cried. The crowd fell silent and most people quietly moved away to allow doctors space to help the woman.
I unashamedly rushed towards her to take notes of a perfect death: here she was surrounded by beautiful people and by some of the best local art – a William Kentridge, the artist himself, a Santu Mofakeng photo. There can surely be no better way to kick the can.
But, too dignified for so public a death, the woman (I was told she’s a museum donor and didn’t want to be named) regained consciousness and fled the scene. The auction resumed and, seconds after the little drama, the large oil painting sold for R1.3 million.
It was Thursday night in Braamfontein, and a around 100 members of Johannesburg’s art-buying and financial elite were gathered at WAM to celebrate its first birthday and to spend money that would make its way into the museum’s fund.
Kicking off the evening’s celebratory events, drinks and snacks were served in the restaurant that looks on to Jorrissen Street from where the outside world must have looked in through the large unclad windows with some bemusement. There Kentridge gave a short welcoming speech and made a toast to the museum.
The museum’s dedicated curators Julia Charlton and Fiona Rankin-Smith looked like the proud parents of a graduating child.
The room was packed with beautiful middle-aged people, at least one of whom was wearing a pair of those red-soled shoes one reads so much about on the front page of newspapers. Keeping me company briefly was Ruarc Peffers of Strauss and Co, who, according to a single woman in the room, is the most eligible bachelor in town. A bit of allright, girls. A bit of allright.
Judy Sexwale’s lawyer, Beverley Clark and Sandra Botha, South Africa’s former ambassador to the Czech Republic, mingled with lawyer and Sunday Times Alan Paton Award judge, Peter Harris, theatre director Malcolm Purkey, and writer Anton Harber.
Nicely warmed-up, the mob moved to the basement room where Welz began the evening’s main event: the auction of 30 contemporary South African artworks donated by artists and the museum’s supporters. Hodgins had donated his work to the museum before he died.
“That was highest price ever fetched for a Hodgins,” Welz told me the following day, befor dismissing as nonsense a theory flung around the room that an interruption during bidding could have pushed prices up.
“A break during an auction gives bidders time to think about what they are doing and to realise they’re about to spend too much money,” he said. “It disrupts the flow.”
The next big lot after the Hodgins was William Kentridge’s No Title.
With a singing rhythm to the bidding, the price swiftly rose to more than R1 million, and it too sold for R1.3 million.
But the it wasn’t sold for that price.
In a surprise turn of events, Elizabeth Bradley, chairman of Strauss and Co, offered to donate R1.3million to the museum if the underbidder, Bidvest Bank’s CEO, Brian Joffe, was prepared to buy the work for R1.2million. He was.
Besides the million rand sales of the Kentridge and the Hodgins works, the first lot—Claudette Schreuders’ Public figure — went for R30 000, while an Alfred Thoba was bought for R100 000 by a young man in a good suit.
David Goldblatt and Joachim Schönfeldt’s works were sold for less than their estimated prices. I felt sorry for Schönfeldt, who was in the room with his architect wife, Hannah le Roux.
“Yes, it’s depressing when the works aren’t appreciated,” says Welz. But luckily for the artists the value of their work is tracked over a series of auctions, not from one sale.
There was a “great generosity of spirit” that evening I was told. Hodgins was most certainly smiling down from the skies.
Sparkling wine flowed as fast as money and by the end of the evening R5 552 000 was raised for the museum’s endowment.
The following day, Lesley Spiro Cohen, WAM’s Strategy, Planning and Development person, said, “We are floating on cloud 9. We are so thrilled. People want us to succeed. It’s incredible. So many works went above their estimates.”
Photo: Elza Roux