Strong demand for mid-century painting and furniture at Strauss & Co sale

15 Oct 2021

An eruptive cheer greeted the R10.4 million sale of Alexis Preller’s dazzling 1965 composition Boy with a Crocodile following suspenseful rivalry between two collectors vying by telephone and online channels for this outstanding painting.

Presented in the premier session of Strauss & Co’s live virtual auction in Cape Town, the exceptional sale price established a new South African record for Preller at auction.

“It is an honour handle works of this exceptional calibre,” says Bina Genovese, a joint managing director at Strauss & Co who knocked down the Preller work on a rostrum backed by a green-screen to enhance the live streaming experience. “Great pictures are the champagne of the auction market, and the buzz leading up to this sale culminated in a moment of real fizz. The sale of Preller’s Boy with a Crocodile will go down as one my auction highlights.”

The three-day hybrid sale kicked off on Sunday, 9 October 2021 with a session featuring a trio of prestigious South African wine producers. All the lots by Alheit Vineyards, Sadie Family Wines and Vilafonté found buyers, generating a higher than expected total of R1.8 million. On the following day, bidders enthusiastically pursued collectable furniture pieces by talismanic international designers. Five artworks, including a painting apiece by Adolph Jentsch and Stanley Pinker, and two by JH Pierneef, fetched over R2 million. The sale netted a total of R53 million, with a combined lot and value sell-through rate of 76%.

“The excellent and diverse offering in this three-day sale contributed to an outstanding result in what remains difficult economic times,” says Frank Kilbourn, Strauss & Co’s chairperson, who formed part of a large audience attending the sale. “The recent easing of Covid regulations at the start of our spring has definitely ushered in a new positivity, as was evident in the welcome return of so many in-person bidders and visitors to our wonderful preview exhibition in Cape Town. It is certainly not business as usual for us. The past 18 months really tested our capacities and has been a defining period for Strauss & Co as we committed ourselves to the digital world. I want to thank our clients for their loyalty and trust and adapting so readily to our new and advanced technology driven platforms.”

The top five lots by value were all twentieth-century paintings. The earliest was JH Pierneef’s pastel-toned marine scene Egyptian Felucca Sailing Boats, painted in 1925 and sold after fierce bidding for R2.5 million. The most recent was Stanley Pinker’s Me and You and a Dog Named Boo, a symbol-laden portrayal of an elderly couple painted in 1984, which sold for R2 million.

The strong demand for modern and post-war paintings saw Adolph Jentsch’s 1938 landscape scene, The Farm Kleepforte, Near Windhoek, sell for R2.5 million, a new world record for this German-Namibian painter. Pierneef’s Legogote, Oos Transvaal, a 1944 oil depicting a mountain

range in Mpumalanga, sold for R2.4 million. Other notable mid-century paintings that found buyers include Irma Stern’s 1962 portrait in pink, Malay Woman, which sold for R1 million, and Erik Laubscher’s Still Life with Fruit and a Blue Jug from 1952, which went for R910 400.

Strauss & Co’s wine department toasted another white-glove sale when all the lots in its session sold. The top-ten lots by value were all from Alheit Vineyards and Sadie Family Wines. The top-selling individual lot was a vertical case of Sadie Family’s long-ageing Columella, South Africa’s most coveted red wine. The 12 vintages (2000-11) in the case attracted serious interest and the lot sold for R113 800, well above estimate.

The decorative arts department once again presented an excellent catalogue, with fine porcelain and works of art from China and Japan, historical silverware, exquisite jewellery, as well as furniture pieces representing multiple periods, traditions and localities.

An impressive large carved Chinese giltwood figural group of the Four Heavenly Kings was the top-selling lot, achieving R409 680. This was followed by a Cape of Good Hope Imperial brass bushel, sold for R364 160, and a 17th-century Antwerp rosewood cabinet, which went for R227 600. Bidder interest in a pair of massive Japanese cloisonné vases from the Meiji period saw this lavishly decorated set eventually sell for R147 940.

Architect-designed furniture pieces by Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe were among the star lots in 20th and 21st-Century Design, a standalone session devoted to modern and contemporary furniture. A pair of LC3 leather and chrome two-seater settees by Le Corbusier, Jeanneret & Perriand for Cassina netted R85 350. A pair of E1027 chrome and glass tables designed by Eileen Gray bearing the manufacturer’s mark sold for R43 244. A pair of black leather and chrome Wassily armchairs designed by Breuer for Gavina also surged past the pre-sale estimate and eventually sold for R39 830.

“We had a wonderful response to the lots in the decorative arts sessions,” says Vanessa Phillips, Strauss & Co’s joint managing director and head of the decorative arts department. “It took many years of dedication and commitment to consign these lots. The results we achieved for the overall mid century furniture is most encouraging.”

There was genuine depth to the demand for post-war paintings, as was evidenced by the estimate-smashing sums paid for two lots by Gladys Mgudlandlu. A 1961 watercolour titled Flowers in a Garden went for R284 500. An undated watercolour and gouache titled Spring in Peddie Forests sold for R170 700. Peter Clarke’s The Vendors, a 1959 oil composition depicting a young man carrying a basket of fruit, sold to a bidder in the room for R796 600. Marist Brothers School, Cape Town, a brooding cityscape by Wolf Kibel,sold for R455 200. Two vibrant landscapes by Maggie Laubser also attracted strong bids.

Appetite for contemporary art, while uneven, nonetheless saw some familiar names emerge victorious. The sale included important sculptures by Norman Catherine, Julius Mfethe, William Kentridge and Dylan Lewis. Of the three sought-after Lewis cat sculptures on offer, Sitting Cheetah Pair from 2010came out on top, selling for R1.6 million.

Kentridge’s rotating bronze Sculpture for Return (Commendatore Naso) tied with Catherine’s Who Zoo, a figural tableau of painted wood figures from 2006, also selling for R682 800. Strauss & Co achieved a world record for Julius Mfethe when a lovingly rendered sculptural study of an isiXhosa homestead and family sold for R108 110.

Contemporary painters Zander Blom and Lionel Smit confirmed their auction prices. An untitled 2013 painting by Blom was the pick of the bunch, selling for R227 600. Marlene Steyn made her auction debut with two works, both finding buyers. Steyn’s large figural composition The Leaf Blows Hers from 2017 sold for R136 560. The contemporary session included four lots by Esther Mahlangu, a doyen of the category. Her 2003 mixed-media canvas piece titled Souvenir de Paris sold for R147 940.

The excellent performance of especially Preller and Pierneef in this sale bodes well for Strauss & Co’s forthcoming three-day live virtual sale in Johannesburg  (7–9 November 2021). The sale, which will be presented under the title Johannesburg Auction Week, includes two spellbinding pictures from the 1950s: JH Pierneef’s late-career masterpiece Bushveld, Pafuri (estimate R8 – 10 million) and Alexis Preller’s seminal Adam and Eve (estimate R7.6 – 8 million). Details of this exciting sale are forthcoming.

2021 Press Releases