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What the humble scatter cushion

does to the value of art

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SPW Contributors

Sanlam Private Wealth

Be it a Walter Battiss drinks coaster, a Tretchikoff scatter cushion or a Mona Lisa T-shirt, does commercialising art cheapen or enhance its value?

Visit the Louvre Museum in Paris and it’s easy to discover where Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ is located – just follow the crowd gathered around the small but iconic painting. Ironically, all of those craning their necks for a glimpse are doing this because they’ve already seen it – it’s one of the world’s most reproduced artworks, having found its way onto everything from calendars and cups to T-shirts.


As the South African art market has matured, this phenomenon has gradually manifested here too, with some local ‘master’s’ art infiltrating popular culture. The most obvious and recent example would be the range of Walter Battiss framed prints and scatter cushions created by the Walter Battiss Company for the @Home homeware chain.

However, cognisant of the notion of ‘exclusivity’ associated with art, the retailer has advertised the range as ‘limited edition’ and only made it available at selected stores.



While some aficionados might welcome the idea of Battiss’s art being introduced to a wider public who may be unaware of his existence or work, others may feel it cheapens the value of his extensive oeuvre, some of which has recently been on exhibition at the Wits Art Museum as part of the exhibition titled ‘I invented myself: Jack Ginsburg Collection’. A full range of the works produced by the Walter Battiss Company, which include ceramics and earrings, are on sale at its store on Long Street in Cape Town.

A distinction needs to be drawn between ‘photolithographic’ renderings of well-known or iconic works of art and active merchandising where a complete image or a single motif from an artist’s oeuvre is used to decorate or develop a design for a new product,’ suggests Stefan Hundt, Curator of the Sanlam Art Collection and art adviser to Sanlam clients.

The former example is a common way for artists, gallerists and/or foundations to increase sales and allow art to be more widely consumed, whereas the latter example – like the Battiss cushions – become the means by which art is used to sell other products. By this stage an artwork has enough cultural currency to persuade consumers to buy anything on which it appears you can safely assume that the artist’s work is valuable.

‘As far as I can see there hasn’t been any negative effect on the value of Battiss’s originals and they seem as sought after as ever,’ Hundt says.



Certainly, when Vladimir’s Tretchikoff’s ‘Chinese Girl’ sold for US$1.5m at a London auction in 2013, the various reproductions of it were cited as securing its value.

‘Millions of people — perhaps your parents or grandparents — bought a lithograph of the painting, hung it on their wall and admired it for years, if not decades,’ asserted Boris Gorelik, Tretchikoff’s biographer. However, due to the proliferation of Tretchikoff images during his lifetime, many disregarded his work as ‘a bit of a joke,’ observed Giles Peppiatt, Director of the South African Art Division at Bonhams auction house in London. This suggests that reproductions devalue the art at the time of its making.

‘I don’t think there is a simple relationship between the original work, a reproduction of such, and how the original may be valued. This is of course also context-based and historically determined,’ says Hundt, who suggests that in the future we can look forward to reproductions and other merchandise carrying recognisable symbols of William Kentridge’s or Gerard Sekoto’s art.

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