20 November 2019
Strauss & Co ended its 2019 programme of live sales on a confident note when the contents of Harcroft House, a distinguished Cape manor home in Constantia, was sold. The highest earner among the 558 lots on offer was a Chinese early Republican period, four-panel scroll painting depicting birds in flowering trees, which sold for R432 440, more than four times the estimate.
This painting formed part of an impressive selection of English and Far Eastern art, furniture and decorative items – notably ceramics, jades and ivories – acquired by English-born collectors Charles and Muriel Rycroft. Married in 1936 and initially based in Perak, Malaysia, the Rycrofts travelled and collected extensively. The couple relocated to Cape Town in the early 1950s, purchasing Harcroft House in the upper reaches of Constantia.
“I want to compliment Strauss & Co’s team of decorative arts specialists on their exceptional work in archiving and marketing this important Cape manor home,” said Frank Kilbourn, Strauss & Co executive chairperson. “The sale of Harcroft House’s contents was a labour of love. The sensitivity and sophistication the team demonstrated greatly contributed to the huge success of this sale.”
Cataloguing the contents of this stately Arts and Craft home began in April. Strauss & Co joint managing director Vanessa Phillips, working with decorative arts specialist Sophie-Louise Fröhlich, supervised the project. Phillips is an expert in complex house sales, having previously handled Keerweder Estate in Franschhoek.
Photographer Denver Hendricks and decorative arts assistants Khanya Daniels-Poyiya and Stacey Brindley provided vital assistance.
“This was the first time I have been involved with a house sale,” said Sophie-Louise Fröhlich. “The extent of the holdings in Harcroft House was significant and required a great deal of time to organise, order and find families for display and marketing purposes. I relied a great deal on Muriel Rycroft’s diaries, personal letters and photo albums, which were a privilege to handle.”
Frank Kilbourn added: “I was delighted by the broad interest generated by this sale, both among local and international buyers. The sale attracted bidders from China, Germany, USA, England and Russia. I think this sale confirms Strauss & Co’s unrivalled ability to handle a specialist house sale of this calibre.”
The quality of the contents of Harcroft House was apparent in the robust bidding throughout the sale. Chinese and Japanese artefacts performed exceptionally well. A ten-panel painting from the Qing dynasty portraying an aristocrat’s court was gamely pursued by two bidders on the floor and eventually sold for R341 400. A pair of blue Japanese cloisonné vases decorated with sprays of chrysanthemum achieved R227 600, also well above estimate.
English artisanal traditions were also well represented in this sale. Two lots by British furniture maker Robert “Mouseman” Thompson, a native of Kilburn, North Yorkshire, drew considerable interest. A pair of his oak armchairs, each featuring Thompson’s signature carved mouse, sold for R170 700. The top silverware lot was a George IV two-handled tureen and cover by Rebecca Eames and Edward Barnard of London, which also trounced its estimate and realised R147 940.
Although dominated by decorative arts items, the catalogue included a number of paintings – many evidencing the Rycrofts proud Englishness. A work by renowned British maritime artist Montague Dawson depicting the storied American clipper Lightning Coasting in the Doldrums sold for R238 980. The best-selling South African painting was a still life of spring flowers and apples by Freida Lock, which achieved R102 420.
The sale generated its fair share of surprises as trade dealers vied with an interested public for these gems. A gorgeous pair of overlaid ruby-red cut-glass vases produced in Belgium in the first half of the 20th-century unexpectedly sold for R19 346. A Chinese two-handled bronze censor and stand dating from the Qing dynasty also attracted vigorous bidding and sold for R68 280, more than 20 times the pre-sale estimate.
“Harcroft House had remained untouched for 70 years and represented the end of an era. It was part of a different world, a world that is no more” added Vanessa Phillips.