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Rare Tretchikoff painting found in Pietermaritzburg

  26 February 2016     Thabang Mathebula     The Witness     Archived

A Vladimir Tretchikoff painting, which had been sold by the artist after a chance meeting with a Pietermaritzburg couple in 1959, could earn its new pensioned owner over half a million when it goes on auction in May.

On Wednesday, the owner of the painting titled Sunflowers, took the work of art to an auction evaluation by Johannesburg-based Strauss & Co.

The 75-year-old woman, who has requested to remain anonymous, inherited the painting after the death of the former owners, who were close relations.

She told the art auctioneers the sale of the painting, by Tretchikoff himself to her relative, was a remarkable tale in itself.

Initially bought for 500 guineas in 1959, the painting is now estimated to worth R400 000 to R600 000 and will be heading to Johannesburg along with other 37 collected in the city to be auctioned by Strauss & Co.

The art work has enthralled the fine art specialists who were evaluating and collecting the artworks at Tatham art gallery on Wednesday for the May 23 auction.

"There is so much to tell about this painting, it is amazing.

"What makes it remarkable is that it has never been seen anywhere else.

"It was bought directly from the artist and the paint has never been polished," said Strauss & Co Johannesburg manager Susie Goodman.

"We just hope many people will fall in love with it at auction," she said.

The pensioned owner told them the renowned immigrant from Russia had sold his still life of sunflowers to her married-in relative, Richard Bann, in September 1959, when he stopped by at the Banns' coffee shop en route to Johannesburg.

Bann's wife Doreen was an accountant to then owner of The Witness, Desmond Craib and later also managed the Banns' coffee shop at 10 Durban Road, where the couple had lined the walls with an eclectic collection of paintings. The relative recalls Bann had paid for the still life with his winnings from a horse race.

Brian Bassett, a former municipal manager in the city who knew Tretchikoff personally, said while the painter was one of the most commercially successful artists in his time in South Africa, his contemporaries derided him as a "shop window decorator".

Bassett said the Russian artist with the thick accent was even refused an exhibition in Cape Town, ostensibly because his oeuvre of "symbolic realism" was seen as just too kitsch, but more likely because the immigrant had succeeded in actually making money from his art, selling hundreds of prints by holding exhibitions in large department stores like Garlicks.

Back then, a signed print would sell for about R25. Today, his Chinese Girl (popularly known as "The Green Lady") is one of the best selling art prints of the 20th century and the original sold for over R21 million (£982 050), three times over the estimate, at Bonhams in London in 2013.

His work is still immensely popular with the general public, and art critics now grudgingly admit that the "King of Kitsch" was onto a good thing when he painted the kind of things many people like, said Bassett.

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