Creative Feel team was saddened to hear of the passing of renowned art auctioneer, Stephan Welz in December last year. We were honoured to have had a working relationship with him over the years and mourn the passing of this respected figure.
Stephan Welz, the renowned art auctioneer who passed away on 25 December at age 72, was distinguished by his tall, rugby-player physique and air of unforced confidence around art. Welz’s assured and charismatic manner, coupled with his wide-ranging knowledge of South African painting and sculpture saw him rise to the top of his profession. Central to Welz’s decades-spanning success as South Africa’s go-to expert and auctioneer was his longstanding association with the world of art and artists.
Born in 1943 in the Breede River Valley town of Worcester, Welz was the third of five sons born to émigré parents Jean Welz and Inger Christensen. Welz’s father, an Austrian-born architect, excelled as a painter.
Welz’s aesthetic education, the foundation of his professional achievements, was decisively influenced by his proximity to artists. Speaking in 2007, Welz warmly recalled an overnight stay at painter Gregoire Boonzaier’s home, an early champion of his father’s austere but lyrical paintings. Irma Stern – who, along with JH Pierneef and Maggie Laubser, Welz once described as ‘names to conjure with’ – was also a frequent houseguest.
Welz’s formal education in the art business began in earnest after his decision to move upcountry. During the late-1960s he held an administrative position in Unisa’s fledgling art department in Pretoria. He worked alongside Walter Battiss.
Welz’s decision to pursue a career in the art business coincided with two notable trends: the professionalisation of the local marketplace for art, and the uptake of influential Euro-American changes in the form of art. Painting and sculpture, his metier, were increasingly challenged by new modes of expression.
In 1970, shortly after obtaining a commerce degree from Unisa, Welz joined Sotheby Parke Bernet, a new auction house established by Reinhold Cassirer and Jane Harraway in Johannesburg. It was a decisive move. Cassirer, a German émigré married to novelist Nadine Gordimer, is remembered for overhauling the image of auction houses locally. Welz, his key protégé, inherited the mantle when, in 1980, Cassirer retired to pursue other interests.
Welz held the reins until 2006, when he sold the company, which since 1987 had been named Stephan Welz & Co following a management buy-out from Sotheby’s. During this 26-year period Welz presided over the incredible growth in interest and value of South African art at auction. The 1980s saw Welz’s affable manner as head auctioneer at Sotheby’s gain him increasing public notice.
Welz also intermittently published. His debut book, Cape Silver & Silversmiths (1976), is now regarded as an authoritative study of silversmiths operating in the Cape from late 17th to mid-19th century. It was followed by two book-length reviews of the art auction market, published in 1989 and 1996.
‘There are no second acts in American lives,’ wrote the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. The same is probably true of South African lives, although not of Stephan Welz. In 2008, Welz came out of retirement to head up the new auction house Strauss & Co. His leadership of the company, which is owned by Elisabeth Bradley, Dr Conrad Strauss and his colleagues, was marked by a new series of career successes.
In a mere half-dozen years, Strauss & Co has emerged as the largest fine art auction house in South Africa and the global leader in the South African art market. The company holds the records for nine of the ten most expensive paintings ever sold at auction in South Africa. Shortly before Welz’s death, he knocked down painter Alexis Preller’s oil and gesso work The Creation of Adam I (1968) for R8.5 million. It set a new auction record for the artist.
Stephan Welz was a colossus of a figure who throughout his life embodied the spirit of artistic cultivation and fellowship learnt so early on from his parents. He will be remembered for his integrity, humility and brilliant sense of humour.