Painting That Helped Save Mandela Set For Auction History

Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966), Arab in Black, oil on canvas 61 x 51cm (24 x 20 1/16in), sold for Sold for £842,500 (US$ 1,318,238) inc. premium at the South African Sale. Image courtesy of Bonhams

Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966), Arab in Black, oil on canvas 61 x 51cm (24 x 20 1/16in). Image courtesy of Bonhams

ART AUCTION: Intriguing story of Arab in Black, a portrait painting that helped save Nelson Mandela


Ephraim Mojalefa Ngatane (South African, 1938-1971), ‘Township Scene’. Estimate: US$ 12,000 – 19,000 Image courtesy of Bonhams

LONDON – A stunning portrait painting of a young Arab in Black by Irma Stern, one of  South Africa’s leading artist, will highlight Bonhams South African Sale on September 9, 2015. Created during Stern’s highly-prized Zanzibar period, the painting is valued at £700,000 to £1m (R20m). A masterpiece with rich provenance, this famous painting is expected to make history at the auction.

Irma Stern’s painting of an Arab in Black has a rich history rooted in Apartheid South Africa. In the 1950s, this iconic image was used to barter for the life of none other than Nelson Mandela and his co-defendants in the country’s notorious Treason Trial.

The history of the Treason Trial was filled with twists and turns. At the height of the struggle for freedom and emancipation in South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) and its allies began to reach out to other freedom fighters across South Africa. Working with a large number of volunteers in 1955, the ANC sent people  into the townships and the countryside across South Africa to collect ‘freedom demands’.  The cumulation of the Freedom demands is the  Freedom Charter  that was officially adopted on June 26, 1955 at a Congress of the People in Kliptown.

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The historic gathering was attended by almost  three thousand delegates, including leaders of the ANC and other groups focused on the emancipation of black South Africans. When the police arrived, they confiscated all the documents they could find, took  over the speakers’ platform, and there was pandemonium. On the second day of this very promising gathering, the police invaded and raided  the meeting. A total of 156 people were arrested, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, and other leaders of the ANC. These leaders of the Apartheid struggle  were charged with “high treason and a countrywide conspiracy to use violence to overthrow the present government and replace it with a communist state”. The punishment for high treason was death.

To save the ANC leaders  and the people arrested  from death, a Treason Trial Defense Fund was initiated  to help pay the legal costs of the defense and to support their families.  From Johannesburg to Bhisho, Bloemfontein, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Nata and other provinces, sympathizers went about soliciting donations. They collected pennies, shillings and pounds.  In addition to cash donations, people were also asked  to donate  paintings, works of art, and books. The items were auctioned for the cause. One of the artists that donated works was Irma Stern.  Fear of persecution from the authorities prevented her  from making to the cause.

The story of how the Arab in Black became the painting that helped save Nelson Mandela is as intriguing as the struggle for freedom by black South Africans.  At the time when the Treason Trial Defence Fund  was requesting for donation, the painting Arab in Black belonged to Betty Suzman, an art lover who treasured it as one of her most prized possessions. Betty was from the family of people that abhorred apartheid and the subjugation of others.

Betty ‘s father was  Max Sonnenberg MP, founder of Woolworths, who vehemently opposed  Adolf  Hitler. When  Hitler came to power in 1933,   Max Sonnenberg, who was aware of Hitler’s hateful rhetoric,  began  boycotting German goods. He was also very involved in helping German-Jewish refugees.

Like Max Sonnenberg,  Betty’s sister-in-law was Helen Suzman was a humanist dedicated to the protection of  the pride and dignity of others. An anti-apartheid activist who was at the forefront of  the struggle for  equality for black south Africans, she made great effort to give black South Africans a voice in their quest for liberation from oppression.  As the sole representative of opposition party in parliament during apartheid, she was a force to reckon with.

The trial of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo and other arrested during the Congress of the People in Kliptown was a never ending story. It took time, sweat and all the donated funds. To augment the depleted fund, the Suzmans generously donated the Arab in Black painting  to one of the Johannesburg auctions.

The donation of the Arab in Black painting  was timely. The fund realized was able to help victims of the Treason trial that  lasted from December 1956 until March 1961, when all the accused were finally found not guilty and discharged. During the Rivonia Trial  three years later, however, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and six others were eventually given a life sentence for treason.

Talking about the accidental discovery of this painting  that helped to save  Nelson Mandela continues to give Hannah O’Leary, Bonhams Head of South African Art  goose bumps. When the painting Arab in Black was put on auction at  one of the Johannesburg auctions, it was bought by a collector who later immigrated to United Kingdom. Hannah O’Leary continues the story which is brimful with excitement: “The buyer of the painting then immigrated to the UK in the 1970s and left the painting to a relative in their will. One of the joys of my work is not knowing what I might find when I go out on an appraisal. Imagine my surprise when I saw this masterpiece being used as a kitchen notice board in a modest flat in London, largely covered with letters, postcards and bills! It was a hugely exciting find, even before the amazing story of its provenance started to unravel”.

Arab in Black is expected to make auction price history when it is put on auction during the Bonhams South African Sale.  Irma Stern’s unique painting technique which captures the man’s mood  makes the painting  even more  valuable. This will not be the first time that a painting by Irma Stern will be making auction price history. In 2011, a similar  Irma Stern’s painting titled Arab Priest sold at  Bonhams  for over £3 million, setting a new world record for South Africa’s leading artist.  The sale was a clear indication that modern and contemporary South African art had truly arrived on the word stage.

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