Skip links

South African photography’s lucrative turnaround

Words: Sean O’Toole

Local art collectors have wised up to the fact that photography is a worthwhile acquisition, catching up to the international appreciation of South African talent.  

Athi-Patra Ruga photography art auction
Athi-Patra Ruga, The Knight of the Long Knives I, 2013.
Sold by Strauss & Co for R 1 707 000 in 2019

In early 2018, Aspire Art Auctions and Strauss & Co, two rival South African auction houses, settled an uncertain fact when they sold important photographs by David Goldblatt for handsome five-figure sums. The results were achieved in the months before the celebrated documentary photographer’s death in June, at 87, and marked a stunning turnaround for a medium that has long been shunned by South African collectors.

The extent of the reversal is worth dwelling on. In 2011, two important photographs by Goldblatt fetched middling sums at Strauss & Co auctions. A 1980 photo of a Boksburg couple dancing under the watchful eye of a dance instructor fetched R77 980, while a 1985 photo of a 15-year-old detainee with both his arms in plaster casts achieved only R38 990. Both photos were vintage prints, a crucial factor in determining a photo’s value.

Athi-Patra Ruga photography art auction
Athi-Patra Ruga, The Night of the Long Knives III, 2014. Sold by Aspire Art Auctions for R295 568 in 2018

Seven years later at Strauss & Co’s maiden contemporary art auction in Cape Town, Goldblatt’s 2007 colour photo portraying an extensive landscape at Nqondwana, near Port Edward, sold for R329 672. The work is part of an edition of ten duplicate prints. A few months later in Johannesburg, Aspire sold a 2003 photo of depicting life on the urban fringe of the City of Gold for R318 640. Local collectors finally warmed to Goldblatt, who in 1998 became the first South African to hold a solo exhibition at MOMA, New York.

In March 2018, Aspire sold The Night of the Long Knives III, a vivid fantasy portrait made in 2014 by Athi-Patra Ruga, for R295 568. Two years ago, Strauss & Co sold Pieter Hugo’s 2007 portrait of a man standing beneath a Lagos flyover with a chained baboon, for R125 048. It helped that Hugo’s portrait was explicitly referenced in the 2011 music video for Beyoncé’s song ‘Run the World (Girls)’.

This article was written on behalf of Investec, the proud sponsor of the Investec Cape Town Art Fair.

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website.