Irma Stern once again affirmed her magnetism, with three paintings by this leading African modernist appearing in the list of top five works sold on the evening of Strauss & Co’s premier auction of modern and contemporary art on Tuesday, 19 September.
The top-selling lot of the evening was Stern’s important portrait, Praying Arab, from the artist’s second visit to the East African island of Zanzibar in 1945, which sold for R18.3 million. Works by William Kentridge and Cecil Skotnes also yielded convincing results.
“At a time when South Africa’s business headlines are awash with news of budget cuts, fuel increases and exchange volatility, I am very pleased that Strauss & Co achieved its goal in generating a credible result from the sale,” says Frank Kilbourn, Chairperson, Strauss & Co. “The results must be seen in the context of a busy and successful year in which we sold 4 023 lots for a total of R 254,7 million, at a sell through rate of 71.1%.”
Irma Stern’s Praying Arab, the cover lot for the auction, was initially passed over when it was offered but sold to a buyer in the room before the auction was completed. The sale was announced by the auctioneer to buyers viewing the auction.
Adds Frank Kilbourn: “The selling price of R18.3 million is the fourth highest price achieved for a work by Irma Stern at a Strauss & Co auction. This excellent result, particularly in our macro-economic climate, underscores the centrality of a Zanzibar-period work by Irma Stern in a blue-chip collection of South African art.”
Irma Stern, who died in 1966, remains a highly sought after artist at auction. In the period 2016 to 2021, Stern earned R417 / $22 million from 174 lots sold, the second highest tally by any modern or contemporary African artist, according to data compiled by ArtTactic. Strauss & Co is the leading reseller of works by Stern. In March 2023, Strauss & Co achieved an African record with the sale of another Zanzibar-period painting, Children Reading the Koran, for R22.3 / $1.227 million.
“The intense interest in Irma Stern we saw at our single-artist auction in collaboration with the Irma Stern Trust in 2022 has been sustained into the current trading year,” says Bina Genovese, Managing Executive, Strauss & Co, who handled the auction. “We saw strong interest in works predating Irma Stern’s career-defining Zanzibar period (1939-45). A 1933 composition, Figures on a Beach, attracted interest characteristic of this canonical artist and sold within estimate.”
The auction saw a return to form at auction of Amadlozi Group artists Cecil Skotnes and Edoardo Villa. A Skotnes wood panel from 1976, Standing Figure, sold above estimate for R635 388 / $33 500. This green shoot follows extensive promotion, both in South Africa and beyond, of the mid-century artists attached to the Amadlozi Group. Strauss & Co recently published a lavish catalogue raisonné devoted to key Amadlozi artists Sydney Kumalo and Ezrom Legae. Strauss & Co will offer important bronzes by Kumalo and Legae in its November sale in Johannesburg, including the important work Squat Head (1968) by Kumalo.
Strauss & Co’s spring auction calendar commenced with an auction of Bordeaux wines. French producers dominated the tally of top results, with Château Pétrus, a celebrated winemaker located on a plateau in the eastern region of Pomerol, charming collectors. The top-selling lot by value was a magnum of Pétrus Pomerol, 1989, sold for R140 700. The best performing South African wine was Kanonkop’s Paul Sauer, 2015, with a case of six bottles achieving R25 795.
The decorative arts department presented a concise offering of mid-century modern furniture that, in the preview exhibition, helped to contextualise the mid-century artists of the Amadlozi Group. Scandinavian designers triumphed. A Bodil Kjær Model 901 office desk, designed in 1959 for E. Pedersen & Son, Denmark, sold for R199 325, quadruple the pre-sale estimate. A pair of Alvar Aalto Model 34/402 cantilevered armchairs, designed in the 1930s for a Finnish company, sold for R164 150. A Finn Juhl Easy SW 96 chair, designed 1956 for a Danish firm, achieved R128 975.
Strauss & Co’s culminating live-virtual auction of modern and contemporary art saw strong prices achieved for works by William Kentridge, Neil Rodger and John Meyer, artists who came to prominence in the last decades of the twentieth century. An edition of William Kentridge’s hand-coloured etching Black Iris, from a series produced in 1993-98, sold for R866 438. Contemporary painter Ayanda Mabulu achieved a noteworthy result when his 2021 composition, God is a Gangstah, sold for R346 575.
An earlier timed online sale of modern and contemporary art saw pronounced interest in the work of mid-century painter Johannes Meintjes, with all three lots offered selling for above estimate. The sale price of R293 125 for Boy with White Cats is the fifth-highest price paid for Meintjes at auction and marks a strong return to pre-pandemic interest in this artist. Maud Sumner’s historically important View of Toledo, painted in 1936, sold for R234 500. Works by contemporary painters Zander Blom and Ruby Swinney matched their benchmark prices. A small abstract composition on green canvas by Blom sold above estimate for R87 938.
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