Perennial Pierneef

Premier auction house Strauss & Co’s July sale of works by South African landscape painter J.H. Pierneef confirms the artist’s enduring attraction

By Matthew McClure
J.H Pierneef Ⓒ Supplied

What is it about J.H. Pierneed that keeps art collectors coming back for more? Could it be that he captures a uniquely Southern African sentiment and pathos that is symbolised by his evocative landscapes? Or perhaps, with global financial markets becoming increasingly bearish, investors are looking for alternative places to squirrel away their hard-earned cash, and quality fine art has always been a safe bet?

“Nostalgia has played a massive part in the resurgence of Pierneef’s market. We’ve had enormous interest from South African expats around the world,” says Dr Alastair Meredith, head of Strauss & Co’s Johannesburg art department, as he talks to me about the auction house’s last sale. For two years in a row, Strauss & Co has seen works by Pierneef fetching staggering prices. One work, depicting a building in Mbweni in Zanzibar, sold for a jaw-dropping R3,2 million, but Dr Meredith isn’t surprised. “People see him as a spectacular South African landscape artist.”

Last year, Strauss & Co’s historic white glove sale of Pierneef works saw 100 percent of the lots finding buyers, so this year’s sale, titled JH Pierneef: En Route, only further confirms that the artist is, and continues to be, a perennial favourite among serious, seasoned art collectors.

The recent record sales of Pierneef’s works by Strauss & Co demonstrate that this artist is currently experiencing a major resurgence in popularity, with an entirely new generation of art buyers. Pierneef is increasingly being seen as a creative whose sphere of influence extended beyond South Africa’s shores, and this is challenging the historically dominant notion that his practice and style is parochial, outdated and synonymous with Afrikaner nationalism. Dr Meredith thinks that this swing is partly a result of a major Pierneef exhibition at the Standard Bank Gallery in 2015, which began to recontextualise this narrative. Titled J.H. Pierneef: A Space for Landscape, the retrospective was curated by Wilhelm van Rensburg in an effort to explore Pierneef’s legacy.

“This landmark retrospective was hugely popular,” Dr Meredith says. “So many people went to visit it. When they realised that Pierneef was also a specialist printmaker, that also generated interest in the market.”

J.H Pierneef, Lowveld, Eastern Transvaal (1928), painted in casein, sold at Strauss & Co for R5,9 million Ⓒ Supplied

Strauss & Co always endeavours to educate buyers on the artists that fall under its gavel. Last year, the auction house conducted a talk focused on linking Pierneef and his output with the Canadian Group of Seven, an informal association of artists who believed distinctive art could be created through a close interaction with nature. These kinds of recontextualisations of Pierneef and his oeuvre undoubtedly make him more of a popular investment and addition to a collection.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Pierneef is also seen as an instantly recognisable status symbol. Hanging one of his landscapes in your dining room is a clear indication that you’ve achieved a certain level of success. So what of investors wanting to hedge their bets in the art market? “If you look at the trends at the onset of Covid, there were many of our clients who were actively buying art as a hedge. There’s no doubt about that. I think that’s extended into the Pierneef market. I think a lot of people feel art is a safe haven, and I would agree,” Dr Meredith says. “I can’t imagine what could ever happen to the Pierneef market that would damage it. Pierneef has had everything thrown at him in terms of politics, so I think he’s weathered that storm.”

What’s particularly lovely about Pierneef is that you don’t have to have millions of rands to add him to your collection, and perhaps that’s why a recent report on the African art market (issued by London- based research firm ArtTactic) has ranked the artist among the top 10 African artists sold at auction between 2016 and 2021. An original Pierneef linocut will set you back anything from R10 000 to R15 000.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that Pierneef’s star is set to continue rising. Get one of your own immediately while you still can.

This article first appeared in the 2022 annual special edition of YourLuxury Africa.

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