Press Office

Rhodes statue led Welz to success

  30 May 2010     Archived

Auctioneer Stephan Welz, the head of art auctioneers Strauss & Co, owes his success largely to a visit to Cape Town, where it seemed as if the statue of Cecil John Rhodes in The Gardens, next to the National Gallery, had a message for him:

Welz, who this week set a record sale for an art piece when he sold an Irma Stern painting for R7.57-million,said: "Rhodes was a very important man in his day, and as his statue faces north I took his advice, and did just that."

He couldn't have been given better advice, for when he came north, he found doors being opened for him.
He didn't just climb the ladder, he galloped up it. He is the third of five sons of artists Jean and Inger Welz, who owned an art and antique gallery in Worcester in the Cape. He has a BCom degree from Unisa,  where he also worked in administrative posts, assisting artist Walter Battiss in the Department of Fine Arts.

After he left Unisa in 1970, he says: "I was lucky enough to be employed by Sotheby's shortly after they started in South Africa. Reinhold Cassirer (Nadine Gordimer's husband) headed it at the time. He was very good to me, and he opened many doors." Welz was appointed to the board of Sotheby's Parke Bernet SA in 1974. He became its executive director in 1975, its managing director in 1980, and he was appointed to the directorate of Sotheby's International in the same year. In 1983, he became a director of Sotheby's London, and he worked in Amsterdam.

Local management bought out Sotheby's auctioneering interests in 1987 and renamed the company Stephan Welz & Co. Welz sold that business at the end of 2006, and recently joined Strauss & Co.

Welz (who ''is edging 70") has been in the auctioneering business for 35 years. He conducted his first auction in 1975 for Sotheby's London, where he was also trained to be an auctioneer. He is passing on his knowledge to two would-be auctioneers. He is regarded as one of South Africa's most knowledgeable art experts and auctioneers, but he has also conducted house sales, as well as game sales for Anglo American Corporation.

He had a television slot on Saturday mornings, which was aimed at those who wanted to learn more about art, antiques and fine furniture. Currently, he does informative video clips on Strauss & Co's website.

The most amusing incident he can recall happened at a game sale for Anglo, when a hedgehog that came under the hammer "escaped, and caused consternation, spoiling that sale". The lowest price he ever got was R5 at a house sale for staff clothing, which apparently was worth considerably more. To illustrate how people can and do make money when they sell what they bought on auction, he recalls selling an Irma Stern painting for R5800 in 1976, and selling it again last year for R5.6-million. Those two prices, obtained for the same work of art, illustrate he is right when he says: "South Africa's perception of art improved considerably after November 1999, when the R1-million barrier was breached for an Irma Stern still life.

''We turned over slightly more than R40-million last night (May 24), which proves there's still life in the art market in these depressing times," says Welz, who is upbeat about auctioneering and its future. He believes it is more professional, its presentations are much better "and, very importantly, the perception of auctioneering has improved considerably".

Published by The Sunday Times