The Sunflowers was uncovered last month in Pietermaritzburg at a public valuation day. Members of the public were invited to bring works for valuation by Strauss & Co specialists and the current owner, a 75-year-old pensioner, arrived with this remarkable Tretchikoff. Along with it, she had press clippings and correspondence between the original owner and the artist. In one letter, the flamboyant Russian immigrant writes:
It is my sincere wish that this picture will bring pleasure to you and graciously harmonise with the character of your home.
The Natal Mercury on 26 September 1959 records that The Sunflowers was bought on the fourth day after Tretchikoff’s exhibition tour opened. It notes that it was ‘[t]he first canvas which the artist has sold during his present visit to Durban’. It cost 500 guineas and ‘was bought by Mr and Mrs D Bunn of Durban Road, Maritzburg’. The work is now expected to fetch between R400 000 and R600 000. Tretchikoff’s 1959 exhibition caused a huge sensation wherever it toured. The artist’s biographer Boris Gorelik notes in Incredible Tretchikoff: Life of an Artist and Adventurer, ‘In 1959, he began his first South African tour in seven years from Garlicks, Cape Town’s fashion hub. He presented works in many different genres – portraits, still lifes, animal studies.’
By 1959, Tretchikoff was already world famous, and had become the richest living artist in the world after Picasso. Tretchikoff prints feature among the best-selling prints of the 21st century, with his Chinese Girl becoming the most bought print in history. Gorelik records that from 1958 to 1966 (before which no data exists), Tretchikoff prints ‘appeared in the Top Ten of new best-selling prints in Britain nine times’. Yet, he notes, ‘For all the success of his prints, Tretchikoff continued to go on tours, meet his fans, and test his new works.’ More than 8 000 people came to the opening day of the 1959 exhibition in Cape Town.
‘[U]shers in dark suits clocked attendance with hand clickers,’ Gorelik writes. The Natal Mercury records a similar turnout in Durban, where the works were exhibited at the Pabros Theatre. In a single day, ‘more than 6 000 people saw the exhibition,’ and after four days, ‘total attendance at the Durban exhibition [was] more than 21 000’. The present owner recalls that Tretchikoff visited the Bunns at their tearoom on Durban Road when the exhibition travelled to Johannesburg, its last stop. While most of the works Tretchikoff sold went to private collections, The Sunflowers continued to gather some modest local fame.
The Bunns exhibited it at their tearoom as part of what a Sunday Tribune correspondent at the time called ‘£1 500 worth of modern paintings’. The Tretchikoff had pride of place and was the most expensive work in their collection. The Tribune also noted, ‘Mr Bunn says it attracts a lot of interest – it’s so lifelike that many customers want to touch the flowers, painted with a raised technique, to see if they are real’.
The Natal Mercury article also noted: ‘The painting, executed with pallet knife and oils, has a three dimensional quality; the petals give the impression of having been individually “chiselled” out.’ Strauss & Co specialist Alastair Meredith says, ‘The Sunflowers is somewhat unusual in that Tretchikoff’s paintings typically had very flat surfaces and very little texture.’ In his foreword to Tretchikoff by Howard Timmins, Stuart Cloete makes reference to the way in which Tretchikoff, particularly in his still lifes of flowers, ‘combined two extreme techniques; those of brush and impasto. This particular technique – half painting, half modelling – is Tretchikoff’s own.’
It is often noted how, as late as the end of the last century, not one national museum had purchased any of Tretchikoff’s work. The Sunflowers would have been a rare example of a work that was exhibited to the public, albeit in a tearoom. Coincidentally, one of the only Tretchikoff paintings in a corporate or public collection in South Africa is also of sunflowers, and was part of the exhibition entitled Old and New at the Sanlam Art Gallery in Cape Town in 2003.
‘It is a privilege to handle such rare and exciting works,’ says Susie Goodman, general manager of Strauss & Co’s Johannesburg office. ‘The Sunflowers is bound to capture the interest and imaginations of art lovers at our May auction.’ At Strauss & Co’s March auction in Cape Town last year, Tretchikoff’s Zulu Maiden sold for R3 183 040. Last year, Strauss & Co handled six Tretchikoffs, all of which were sold.