What it's like: Strauss & Co Auctioneer Bina Genovese on setting an African auction record

more than a year ago

In this new interview series, we chat with people who do extraordinary things and are skilled at keeping their cool. This week we find out what it was like to set an African auction record, from Director, Managing Executive and Auctioneer at Strauss & Co., Bina Genovese

At the culmination of Cape Town Auction Week in March 2023, Bina Genovese sold Irma Stern’s Children Reading the Koran (1939) for a whopping R22.3 million ($1.227-million). Genovese has more than 30 years experience in the art auction world. A highly skilled auctioneer, she now holds the record for having sold the most expensive painting at auction in Africa. We were curious about what it takes to maintain a steady focus when the stakes are so high.
Auctioneer Bina Genovese

How does it feel to set an auction record of this magnitude?  
Absolutely exhilarating! This is not only an African record for Irma Stern, but for a painting sold at auction in Africa. The anticipation in the room last Tuesday night when we reached lot 26 was palpable and, at the same time, tense. The bidding started slowly but sped up as the competing bidders placed their bids. As is the case when the bids are going up in millions of Rands, the room fell silent. The entire focus was on the bidding – the anticipation of experiencing the moment when this highly important, rare and museum-grade work was going change hands. There was bidding taking place on the telephones, bidding online and bidding in the room – my best combination – the more, the merrier.  

'As I knocked down the gavel, the room exploded into rapturous applause, a combination of shock at the high price achieved, relief, and awe!'


How do you manage to keep a cool head when the excitement in the room must start to feel almost physical? 
Deep concentration, deep focus – and a love for what I am doing! I feel like the conductor of an orchestra managing the bids as they come pouring in from all the different sources. We had up to 700 people online on Tuesday evening, so I had to manage the bidders on the screen, the bidders in the room and those on the telephones. Experience helps, but that knot in my stomach is always there as I step onto the podium. Once I get going, it disappears, but occasionally, as we approach important lots, I can feel my heart beating faster. My daughter attends every auction and sits in the front row.  I find her presence very reassuring as she checks on me and keeps me smiling.  
How did you get to do the work you do today?  
A lifetime of addiction to adrenaline ... It can get very intense at times.

The opportunity of furthering my studies at Christie’s Education in London was presented to me by a friend of my parents after I had completed my BA Honours degree at Wits. My application was successful, and I spent a year in London attending lectures in the morning and gaining practical experience in the afternoons by visiting museums, galleries, and auction salerooms. I learnt so much during that year – the course was Fine and Decorative Arts from the Renaissance to the present – it gave me a broad and holistic view of the arts: the influences and the trends encompassing all the arts, including fine art, literature, music, furniture, glass, ceramics, in fact, all the decorative arts. 

"There was bidding taking place on the telephones, bidding online and bidding in the room – my best combination – the more, the merrier."

This was followed by a return to Johannesburg where I did an internship with Stephan Welz & Co in association with Sotheby’s, in the Decorative Arts and Furniture Department. Two years later, I was consumed by the desire to go abroad. So I emigrated to Rome, where I was employed by Christie’s, working there for nine years and becoming the Office Manager, heading the client services, bids and press departments. Our offices were in an elegant Renaissance building overlooking Piazza Navona – what a privilege it was to work in the art world, in Rome, a living museum. I then returned to South Africa and, after a stint back at Stephan Welz & Co in association with Sotheby’s, we founded Strauss & Co in Cape Town. What a journey this has been – from the last kid on the block to the leading auction house in Africa. 
What’s the first painting you ever sold at auction and tell us about that experience?  
Gosh, difficult to remember, also I didn’t start with paintings – young amateur auctioneers are usually given the less exciting sales to handle (won't specify….) and only later are “upgraded” to selling art. 
Bina Genovese at Strauss & Co. Fine Wine Auction

There was a time when auctioneers were always male. What made you want to be an auctioneer?  
I have worked in the auction industry my entire working life – which was indeed dominated by males and male auctioneers – but things have changed so much now, certainly at Strauss & Co. I always wanted to be an auctioneer and was not intimidated by the male-dominated sector. It took time though. For me being on the podium and selling is the culmination of all the hard work involved in securing works for sale. It encompasses the entire process, cataloguing, photography, research, conversations about the works, the curation and design of the catalogue, the bespoke events in the build-up towards the sale, the marketing campaigns, engaging with collectors, being present at the preview and finally taking part in the auction.  

'Although I wanted to be an auctioneer, being on the stage was definitely not in my comfort zone.'

I was inspired to take the plunge by my daughter, who, for years, I had witnessed taking part in gruelling ballet eisteddfods with up to three judges, her peers and competitive parents staring at her in silence.  Every time, I would reassure her that she would be fine. Why would she be fine if I, the adult, could not face the thought of being on stage?  
How do you prepare yourself to be on the stage?  
Research, engaging with our specialists, attending all lectures and walkabouts  – I like to be fully prepared and attuned with everything I sell. 
Any talisman, lucky outfit, ritual that you think helps with mental prep?  
Getting the outfit sorted! Which of course has to work with the painting behind it…. I love fashion and always say that in my next life… 
Irma Stern - Children Reading the Koran
The painting: Irma Stern's 'Children Reading the Koran' sold for a record price at the Strauss & Co. auction.

How do you keep cool when there is some much going on around you to observe and time pressure to act?  
I have learnt some self-regulating tools over the years, and even more now that I have dedicated 200 hours to an intense yoga course. I work on my breathing, on being present and embracing all that is going on around me (remember, auction rooms are a bit like stations – people talk on their phones, colleagues call clients who have booked to be called on specific lots, people come and go – at any point if my mind begins to wander, I stop and take a deep breath to reset and continue. I love the focus, and I love the excitement. There was very competitive bidding on Tuesday night, I struggled to knock down that gavel as each time I tried to, a new bid would pop up on the screen or in the room or on the phones. An auction I won’t forget. 
What is your after-auction ritual? How do you mark the end of a sale?  
It has to be a glass of bubbly with my colleagues. 
What’s the one painting you sold that you wish you had kept, and why?  
JH Pierneef’s Gold and Green, Rooiplaat, NT – from the Property of a Lady. It belonged to a dear friend who entrusted it to me to sell. It is the most spectacular painting – an early impressionistic work with lovely light and colour flickering over the surface – featuring clusters of his beloved willow trees – [it] could easily be mistaken for a Monet! 
JH Pierneef Gold and Green Rooiplaat
Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, Gold & Green, Rooiplaat, N.T., oil on artist’s board, 45,5 by 60,5cm Sold R 2 731 200 – The property of a Lady



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