Jacob Hendrik Pierneef (South African, 1886-1957), ‘Highveld Storm’ oil on board, 41 x 56cm (16 1/8 x 22 1/16in) is one of the works sold at the Bonhams South African Sale
LONDON – Arab in Black by Irma Stern is now one of the top ten South African paintings ever sold at auction. The painting that helped save Nelson Mandela’s life was sold for £840,000 at Bonhams South African Sale, becoming the most expensive South African painting sold this year. Arab Priest also by Irma Stern holds the world record for a work of art by a South African artists sold at auction. The painting which sold for £3.04 million at Bonhams in 2011, also holds the world record for any African art sold at auction.
Months before Arab in Black went on auction at the South African Sale, there were expectations that it would bring high auction price. Besides the paintings provenance, the history surrounding the painting made it collectors delight. Originally owned by art collector, Betty Suzman, Arab in Black was put up for auction in the early 1960s to raise money for the defense of Nelson and his co-defendants in South Africa’s Treason Trial.
In 1955, Mandela and other members of the African National Congress (ANC) were arrested and charge for high treason, a crime that carried the death penalty. To save Mandela and all those arrested from the jaws of death, the Treason Trial Defense Fund was set up to raise money for legal fees and to support the defendants’ families. Donations were collected and art were sold. Arab in Black was one of the works auctioned for the course.
As expected, collectors were unrelenting in their effort to add Arab in Black to their collection when it came up at the Bonhams South African Sale. As soon as bidding started, the competition became intense. In the end, the painting which had for many years hung in a London flat and used as a notice board sold for £840,000, a record auction price by all standards.
Describing the significance of the painting, Bonhams Head of South African Art, Hannah O’Leary notes that this is an exceptional and powerful painting. He notes: “This powerful image from Stern’s highly regarded Zanzibar period, is one of the artist’s finest works. It also has a fascinating past – from an important role in the political history of South Africa to its recent fate as a notice board in a modest London apartment.”
Arab in Black is not the only work by Irma Stern to make enormous impact at this auction. Another work by the artist titled Congo Woman sold for £122,500 (US$ 191,672) inc. premium. Dated 1929, Congo Woman, the painting has the image of a semi-nude Congo woman. Although not a particular likeness, this representation which is a work of imagination exoticizes its subject in the similar fashion of works Stern created after returning to Cape Town in 1920. The painting exemplifies Stern’s shift from memetic representation to the realm of imagination and ideas.
Other important South African artists were also represented at the South African Sale. Jacob Hendrik Pierneef’s Highveld Storm was one of the top sellers at the auction. The oil on board painting measuring 41 x 56cm (16 1/8 x 22 1/16in), sold for £98,500 (US$ 154,120) inc. premium. The landscape painting captures a vast cumulonimbus clouds, hanging over purple mountains, threatening to burst at any moment.
Anton van Wouw’s sculpture titled Bust of a Zulu got the attention of collectors when it was presented to collectors at the South African Sale. The bronze sculpture measuring 55 cm (21 5/8in) sold for Sold for £80,500 (US$ 125,956) inc. premium.
Bust of a Zulu is a powerful sculpture that reveals van Wouw’s talent as a sculptor and portraitists. From the model’s muscular neck and smooth face carefully contrasted with the rough yet precise peppercorn hair and beard, van Wouw revels the model’s characteristics. Bust of a Zulu was presented by Prime Minister General Jan Smuts to Dr. D.L. Smit when he retired in 1945. Dr. Smit was Secretary of the South African Native Affairs Department (NAD) from 1934-1945. Between the conclusion of the Boer War and the end of World War II. The department had the responsibility of upholding the power of the traditional chiefdoms, as well as ensure their rights to bestow land to their subjects that fell within native reserves.
Cast by the G. Massa foundry in Rome, Bust of a Zulu sold by Bonhams is just one of several by the artist. Other editions of Bust of a Zulu are in the collections of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, the Reserve Bank art collection and the Pretoria Art Museum.
The success of the South African Sale shows the progress of South African artists in the global art auction space. Since 2011 when Bonhams sold Stern’s painting Arab Priest for over £3m, setting a new world record for South Africa’s leading artist, interest in work by south African Artists have continued to grow. But the progress made by South African artists also extends to works by African artists. Works by African artists are not only attraction record auction prices but also creating excitement among emerging and established collectors.
Here are the top ten works at the Bonhams South African Sale