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Radiant Irma Stern still life leads Strauss & Co’s offerings for the second half of 2018

  15 June 2018     Archived

Strauss & Co, South Africa’s leading auction house, has experienced brisk trade in the period January to June, generating combined sales of R120 million (R120 588 713). The company’s three live sales, which this year included a new specialist auction exclusively focusing on contemporary art, generated the lion’s share of the turnover, netting R111 million (R111 053 588). Four online sales brought in R9.5 million (R9 530 200).

Captions left to right

Lot 274

Alexis Preller
Head (Adapting Itself to the Unendurable)
Sold R 7 055 600

Lot 307

William Kentridge
Deep Pool, from the series Colonial Landscape
Sold R 3 414 000

Lot 213

Jake Aikman
Sold R 341 400


Irma Stern
Estimate R8 to 120 million

From the Labia Family Trust
To be sold in Cape Town on 15 October 2018

The half-year sales are tremendously encouraging, particularly as South Africa’s general economy languishes following poor first-quarter GDP results and tremors in the corporate sector.

“After a very exciting start to the year with South Africa’s first standalone contemporary art auction, we achieved solid results in our subsequent sales notwithstanding the challenging economic conditions,” said Frank Kilbourn, Strauss & Co’s chairperson. He expressed his satisfaction with the company’s overall performance, adding: “We are delighted to have consolidated our position as market leader for modern and contemporary South African art.”

Especially heartening is the performance of the contemporary art segment, which saw William Kentridge and Robert Hodgins place second and third respectively after Alexis Preller as the most valuable artists sold at auction in 2018.

Kentridge generated R7 938 138 from 25 lots sold while Hodgins achieved R6 029 252 from 28 lots sold. A museum-quality drawing by William Kentridge, Deep Pool (1996), from his series Colonial Landscapes, sold for R3 414 00 in June.

But it is Preller who has emerged as the outstanding performer at Strauss & Co’s auctions so far in 2018. A fine selection of Prellers offered at the company’s June sale pushed his half-year sales total to R18 209 029 from just 13 lots sold. Preller’s Head (Adapting Itself to the Unendurable), an enigmatic portrait from 1949, was the highest individual lot fetching R7 055 600.

JH Pierneef came in fourth, with sales totalling R5 266 907 from 24 lots sold, followed by another landscape painter, Erik Laubscher, who netted R4 480 312 from just seven lots sold. Peter Clarke (R3 647 634), Walter Battiss (R3 244 168), Vladimir Tretchikoff (R3 057 451), Gregoire Boonzaier (R2 317 628) and Adriaan Boshoff (R2 163 468) rounded off the table of most valuable artists.

The half-year results require a measure of interpretation. Auction bellwethers like Maggie Laubser, Irma Stern and Gerard Sekoto are notably absent from the half-year table. This is singularly a reflection on the slim trade in top-quality works by these artists.

A fine social-realist work from Sekoto’s formative Sophiatown period, The Donkey Water Carrier (c.1939), fetched R1 079 960 in March. Stern will also doubtlessly shake up the all-male table when her floral still life, Dahlias (estimate R8 – R12 million), goes on sale in October.

Measuring nearly a metre wide and high, Stern’s radiant study of the showiest of cut flowers claims an impeccable provenance that, along with its fine quality, will no doubt prompt vigorous bidding. Formerly owned by seasoned collectors, Cecilia and Ben Jaffe, the painting was acquired in 1994 at a Cape Town sale led by the late Stephan Welz, Strauss & Co’s founding director. The Stern forms part of an exciting trove of works consigned to Strauss & Co by the Labia Family Trust for the Cape Town October auction. Alongside works by British, French, Hungarian and Italian painters, the Labia Family Trust consignment includes striking canvases by Gwelo Goodman, Terrence McCaw and Frans Oerder. Pieter Wenning’s bucolic 1918 study of Bishopscourt, The Yellow House (estimate R500 000 – R700 000), ranks alongside Stern’s still life as a highlight.

Johannesburg audiences will be able to view Stern’s expressionist masterpiece before it goes under the hammer at a special showing of this pioneering expressionist painter’s work at the Turbine Art Fair, Johannesburg (12 – 15 July 2018). Following on the success of his exhibition devoted to JH Pierneef at last year’s fair, Strauss & Co senior art specialist Wilhelm van Rensburg is curating the exhibition Life Force: The Still Lifes of Irma Stern.

Strauss & Co’s participation in the Turbine Art Fair art fair dovetails with a broader aim to nurture new audiences and collectors, notably for contemporary art. The strategy is yielding dividends. The company’s inaugural contemporary art sale in February affirmed the reputations of senior artists like Hodgins, Kentridge, Karel Nel and Penny Siopis at auction, and established new world records for Jake Aikman and Lisa Brice.

Aikman’s brilliant form at auction continued in June when his enigmatic seascape in shades of grey and green, Beneath, sold for R341 400, in the process resetting his world record price.

“I am delighted that Jake’s wonderful early paintings have gained a new audience among our collectors,” said Bina Genovese, Strauss & Co’s joint managing director. “It is heartening to see hard-working young painters like Jake, Zander Blom, Georgina Gratrix, Mongezi Ncaphayi and Blessing Ngobeni consistently draw enthusiastic bids at our live sales. It validates the role of the secondary market in affirming young talent.”

Strauss & Co’s specialists are currently consigning work for the company’s much-anticipated October sale in Cape Town, which will include the blockbuster Stern from the prestigious Labia Family Trust consignment. Consignments are also invited for the company’s November sale in Johannesburg, which will include a themed section titled An Unsung History that focuses on overlooked and neglected artists from the twentieth century.

The Johannesburg sale coincides with the thirtieth anniversary of curator Steven Sack’s landmark exhibition, The Neglected Tradition: Towards a New History of South African Art (1930-1988), which opened at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in November 1988. Strauss & Co’s sale will both honour Sack’s important exhibition and expand on its defining metaphor by focussing on unsung artists of all races.

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