7 March 2019
Strauss & Co’s much-anticipated March sale in Cape Town contains a bounty of eleven lots by Irma Stern, South Africa’s most valuable artist at auction. The Stern offering includes three exceptional portraits from the painter’s highly prized Zanzibar period (1939–45), one of which is unrecorded in literature about this prolific artist.
Captions left to right:
R 13 000 000 - 17 000 000
R 12 000 000 - 16 000 000
R 15 000 000 - 20 000 000
Acquired directly by Cape Town collector Sol Munitz from the artist, Portrait of an Arab (estimate R12 – 16 million) is dated 1945 and depicts an Omani nobleman from the royal court of the Sultanate of Zanzibar. Presented in an original Zanzibar frame, the work is one of only four such portraits by Stern of Arab noblemen known to exist.
Stern visited Zanzibar on two occasions, first in 1939, and again in 1945. It was during the latter trip that she visited the Sultan’s palace. While the aging, bearded sitter in her portrait is unnamed, Stern’s painting clearly identifies him as an Omani nobleman through his garments, notably the combination of blue, lilac, purple and orange in his turban (mussar).
Also from the Munitz Collection and acquired directly from the artist, The Mauve Sari (estimate R13 – 17 million) was painted a year after Stern’s second Zanzibar trip. The work depicts a young Bahoran woman in three-quarter pose wearing a lilac sari with gold detailing. Stern’s fascination with the saris worn by women of Indian ancestry living along the East African coastline stemmed from an encounter in Durban in 1935. The Mauve Sari was painted a decade later and showcases Stern’s confident use of vibrant colours. “This work is perhaps most remarkable for Stern’s fine sense of balance between calm introspection and lively animation,” says art historian and Stern expert Prof Sandra Klopper of the portrait.
The largest of the three portraits is, Meditation, Zanzibar (estimate R15 – 20 million). Consigned from the collection of well-known Johannesburg businessman and politician the late Louis Shill (*) and his wife Mavis, this earlier painting dates from Stern’s first visit to Zanzibar, in 1939, and depicts a young woman swathed in lustrous colours. Acquired in 1972 from Die Kunskamer, a noted Cape Town gallery, the work is distinguished by the demure bearing of the splendidly outfitted sitter. “The intensity and pathos of the woman’s expression suggests a strong empathy between Stern and her subject,” said art historian Prof Federico Freschi. The work is also notable for capturing the “languid mystique” of the exclusively feminine world of the Sultan’s harem, added Freschi.
“These extraordinary portraits have not changed hands in over a half century and present a rare opportunity for discriminating collectors to acquire a peak-period Stern,” said Bina Genovese, Strauss & Co’s joint managing director. “The pre-sale estimates are based on the period, the important provenance and remarkable vitality of the individual pictures.”
Irma Stern has been a bellwether of the South African auction market for decades, and remains unrivalled as the most valuable South African artist at auction. Since its first live sale in 2009, Strauss & Co has sold 164 lots by Stern, achieving combined sales of R360 million. Stern’s still lifes have been an important and long-standing contributor to this total. Painted in 1937, Still Life with Ginger Plant (estimate R2 – 3 million) depicts an arrangement of flowering shell ginger presented in a celeste jug and flanked by an arrangement of fruit. Stern’s colour-drenched floral studies are understood as having helped her achieve the fluent style of her mature portrait paintings.
Strauss & Co’s sale at the Vineyard Hotel in Cape Town further includes a mixed-media work on paper by Stern from 1940 depicting two figures at leisure in an abstracted landscape (estimate R400 000 – 600 000). There are also six pieces produced between 1952 and 1962 – two drawings, three gouaches and a mixed-media work – consigned by the Irma Stern Trust. Proceeds from their sale will wholly benefit the Trust. Alongside the impressive offering of eleven Sterns, Strauss & Co is also offering a seminal painting by Alexis Preller, Collected Images (estimate R7 – 9 million), from the Shill Collection, as well as exceptional Cape furniture pieces from the Collection of Dr Johan Bolt and various oriental works of art and ceramics from the Dr JR and Mary Strong Collection.
Strauss & Co will host a preview of all these works at the Vineyard Hotel in Cape Town from 15 to 17 March, between 10am and 5pm. The sale will be held at the same venue on Monday, 18 March. For details of Stern’s works and the company’s extensive programme of talks and social events in support of its sale, visit www.straussart.co.za
Bina Genovese | 083 680 9944
(*) The late Louis Shill was a well-known South African businessman and politician. A qualified chartered accountant through Witwatersrand and Stamford Universities, he was one of the founders of Liberty Life in the late 1950s and founder and chief executive of Sage Fund in 1965 which introduced the concept of unit trusts in South Africa. He was appointed minister for national housing and public works in 1993.