South African museums left empty-handed

April 2008 -

Art made by South African artists is so popular at foreign auctions that the country's own museums can no longer afford to purchase the work. As a result, paintings by the national masters, which often have great cultural-historical meaning, are disappearing to other countries.


Song of the Pick by Gerhard Sekoto

South African art became big business in the past year. Bonham’s auction house in London was the first to devote an entire auction to South African art. The prices paid exceeded every expectation. No less than fourteen million rand (about 1.1 million euros) was earned by the works of three leading artists: Gerhard Sekoto, Irma Stern and Jacob Hendrik Pierneef. In December 2007, seventeen paintings by Sekoto set a new record when they changed owners for nearly five million rand (almost 400,000 euros).

These works included nine aquarelle paintings portraying the Sharpville massacre, a symbolic turning point in the struggle against apartheid that is still commemorated each year in South Africa. Sekoto is South Africa's own realist, who lived his life since 1947 in exile in Paris, where he died in 1993 without ever returning to his homeland.

Although the high prices are good news for art dealers, the museums in South Africa are less fortunate. They cannot afford the increasingly higher price demanded for works of art. The meagre budgets they receive from the government do not even make it worth the effort to try. The Iziko National Gallery, for example, receives only 140,000 rand per year for acquisition, a sum that has been frozen since 1994.

The museums fear that historically important work by black artists in particular, often made during the struggle against apartheid, will all disappear to other countries. Apparently, the government is not worried enough about the potential loss of cultural heritage. A response from the government has yet to be heard.