Collecting SA Art Could Be A Stroke Of Genius

7 Feb 2016

Having a good collection of SA art could be a stroke of genius

A month after my bar mitzvah back in December 1960 my dad took my younger brother, Ian, and me on a holiday to Cape Town.
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We stayed in Mowbray with his first cousin, Dr Charlie Shapiro (Jonathan "Zapiro's" grandfather).

Often we would cross the railway line on foot at the back of Charlie's house and call on his sister, Cissy, who lived a short distance away in Rosebank.

There are two things I remember so vividly about her home. The house would shudder each time a train passed, and every conceivable space on her walls was covered with an artwork - etchings, drawings, oils, woodcuts and watercolours.

Cissy's circle of friends included musicians, writers and artists like Gregoire Boonzaier, Maggie Laubser and Irma Stern.

I recall overhearing that a number of the pictures were either presents from the painters or payment-in-kind for assistance and advice provided by her affable bookkeeper husband, Ben.

The visits to Ben and Cissy's home made a lasting impression on me. The house was unassuming and modestly furnished, but I was entranced by the wonders on the walls. Each of the pictures divulged a fascinating story.

It awakened my awareness in art and within a few years, as a young university student, I began collecting pictures, a passion I have not abandoned.

Although my preferences varied, I developed a special interest in etchings and drawings that portrayed social conditions of the period, and over the years spent hours combing catalogues in search of relevant works that matched a meagre pocket.

Recording my art onto a spreadsheet from the original invoices recently dealt a shattering blow, exposing how the steady deterioration of the rand over decades had corroded my purchasing power.

Thirty years ago I seemed quite comfortable making regular purchases abroad that today I would have to think very hard about, even though my financial circumstances have improved considerably.

Observers might interpret my inflation measure as pretentious, but it is the only multidecade gauge of spending I have handy. Plus, my tastes are not trendy (I own no Kentridges) and my collection would hardly raise murmurs at any high-level auction.

Regardless, it highlights, to me anyway, just how far my earnings clout has diminished on an international scale - from the time I bought two tacky oils in Montmartre in 1965 - to the present.

Still, the story has a happy ending. Our deteriorating exchange rate has forced me to change tack and hunt locally for artworks, with astonishing outcomes. Our economy might be shrivelling, but our artistic flair never ceases to grow.

South Africa has a pool of talent that reaches deeper than a mineshaft, and ignoring the timeworn, six-figure exhibits at the tourist traps, you will struggle to find another country that offers you equal value for money.

As an appetiser, explore galleries such as StateoftheART in Cape Town or Gallery 2, Lizamore, David Krut Projects and Assemblage in Johannesburg.

I have never thought of art as an investment, nor can I believe Ben and Cissy ever had in mind how high the pictures on those shaky walls would appreciate a generation or two later.

So, who knows?

Fifty years from now my great-grandchildren might, too, be celebrating the wisdom of buying Mashabas, Sitholes and Sibiyas.

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