This is the story of an incredible recent discovery in London. One which has shocked the art world, and one which has South Africa at its heart.
An Irma Stern painting was recently found covered in bills and letters, presumably used as a noticeboard, in a London flat.
Irma Stern is regarded as South Africa’s leading artist, whose works have recently been soaring in value. Although the painting was used as a notice board, it is not damaged; it is still in its original form.
The ‘Arab in Black’ was painted on Stern’s first visit to Zanzibar in 1939, when Zanzibar was still under the reign of an Omani Sultan – Seyyid Khalifa Bin Haroub.
It had been in the same family since it was purchased directly from the artist by the present owner’s mother over 70 years ago, and had never before appeared on the market.
In the early 1960s, the painting the Arab in Black was put up for auction to raise money for the defence of Nelson Mandela and his co-defendants in their treason trial.
Mandela had been arrested in 1955 on a charge of high treason, which carried the death penalty, and the Treason Trial Defence FUND was set up to raise money for legal fees and to support the defendants’ families. The fact that it had such great provenance added to its value.
The painting was originally purchased by art collector, Betty Suzman, whose father, Max Sonnenberg MP, founded Woolworths. Betty was the sister-in-law of anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman.
The painting was taken to Britain in the 1970s when the buyer immigrated to the UK and was subsequently bequeathed it to her heir, who loved the painting and they knew it had some value, but had no idea it was such an important work.
The auction house’s head of South African Art, Hannah O’Leary, discovered the work by chance on a routine evaluation of client artworks.
The paintings value was estimated to be R20 million and actually sold for R17.2-million – the second-highest price ever for a painting sold in South Africa. The highest price was reached last year when Strauss & Co sold Stern’s Two Arabs for R21 166 000.
So that’s the story of the R 20 Million Notice Board. With such an incredible discovery and back story, the Arab In Black will go down as one of the most amazing stories in art history.
Article originally written with our close partner The Henry Taylor Art Gallery.
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