- World record for Anton van Wouw
- World record for a still life by Irma Stern
- World record for a tapestry by Athi-Patra Ruga
Two pioneering artists, Irma Stern and Anton van Wouw, both dominant figures in South Africa’s robust auction market for many decades, shone at Strauss & Co’s R58 million grossing autumn sale in Johannesburg. The bustling sale drew many visitors to see a world first – five Van Wouw castings from five different international foundries – and also saw consolidation in the contemporary art segment.
The top-selling lot was Irma Stern’s Still Life with Fruit and Dahlias, which sold to a bidder in the room for R16.16 million, a new world record for a still life by this artist. Painted a year after Stern’s second visit to Zanzibar, the work portrays an exuberant bouquet of dahlias in a Chinese jar and is presented in a coveted Zanzibari frame.
Five telephone bidders resolutely chased after Utrecht-born Anton van Wouw’s only known bronze maquette of statesman Paul Kruger, which was cast by the Roman foundry of Giovanni Nisini. When auctioneer Alastair Meredith eventually knocked down on the work, the selling price of R10.47 million established a new world record for this much-admired sculptor. The sale price more than doubled the previous world record for Van Wouw, also held by Strauss & Co.
Frank Kilbourn, Strauss & Co’s chairperson, commented after the sale: ‘Van Wouw’s performance was not a flash in the pan. Many forget that in 1981 his work portraying a mineworker with a hand-drill sold for R80 000, then a record price for a South African artwork sold at auction. It is very encouraging to see Stern and Van Wouw continue to perform solidly at market. Their work is the foundation on which our vibrant post-war and contemporary art categories are built.’
Susie Goodman, an executive director at Strauss & Co, said: ‘Van Wouw’s artistic bronze of Paul Kruger is one of the most important historical works to have passed through Strauss & Co’s hands in recent years. The work drew considerable interest during our preview. There was interest among audiences to learn more about our country’s history through our art, and this powerful artwork certainly provided that.’
The remarkable Van Wouw consignment included one of the rarest of all the sculptor’s earliest masterpieces, an endearing study of a bearded elder titled Leemans the Postman. Cast by Nisini, it drew enthusiastic bidding and sold for R1.6 million. A stirring bust of a mineworker, The Accused, cast by Massa, sold for R1 million.
This once-in-a-lifetime sculptural offering was informed by cutting-edge new research. Gerhard de Kamper, chief curator of collections at the University of Pretoria, has recently uncovered details that Van Wouw worked with five Italian foundries, not three as was long thought.
Dr. Alastair Meredith, who heads up the art department in Johannesburg, says: ‘Research proves that Van Wouw was a worldly artist whose social realist sculptures responded to the history and economy of early Johannesburg. His technically exquisite sculptures catered to his patrons’ demands and reflect the heady period of industrial enterprise and social issues of the times. More than this, Van Wouw formed part of an amazing artistic energy on the Highveld at the start of the twentieth century.’
Other artists from this early South African avant-garde represented on the Strauss & Co sale were Erich Mayer and JH Pierneef, who was Van Wouw’s godson and artistic apprentice. The sale included 14 lots from the estate of Erich Mayer, all of which found buyers. The top-selling lot was a pair of extensive charcoal drawings measuring over two metres in length, Boere Piekniek, which sold for R85 350, double its estimate. Bidders vied for an early Pierneef pastel and charcoal drawing from 1914 depicting a fig tree, Rustenberg, which sold for R512 100, well above the estimate.
Strauss & Co’s sale’s catalogue featured a broad selection of artists representing the vibrant post-war and contemporary art segments. First emerging as a painter in the 1950s, Peter Clarke has in recent years commanded solid prices for his paintings at auction. Sandy Bay, a 1969 canvas depicting four bathers, fetched R1 365 600, the price continuing the upward trajectory of this socially engaged artist.
Two lots by Alexis Preller, a defining painter of the post-war period, reliably placed in the top-ten individual lots sold at Strauss & Co’s Johannesburg sale. Profile Head, a late work from 1969 portraying a masculine subject, achieved R1.14 million; an earlier, mythically-themed painting from 1950, Boy on a Horse, sold for R910 400.
On a sale that foregrounded education and artistic lineages, it was gratifying to see Preller expert Karel Nel perform well in his own right as an artist. Nel’s enigmatic 2014 drawing of an interior, Presence: Leaf Shrine, North Island, Seychelles, sold for R500 720. The top-selling contemporary lot was William Kentridge’s important triptych from 1988, Art in a State of Grace, Hope and Siege; rarely offered as a complete set, the work sold for R1.14 million.
Younger contemporary artists Jake Aikman and Athi-Patra Ruga confirmed their status as artists to watch. Jake Aikman’s haunting 2017 seascape titled South Atlantic sold for R500 720, surpassing a previous world record set in June 2018 by Strauss & Co. The Johannesburg sale also established a new world record for Ruga’s tapestries when a 2010 work about Xhosa initiation, Ilulwane … he’s not one of youz, sold for R477 960, well above estimate.
Founded in 2009, Strauss & Co is the world’s leading auction house for South African art. Its next live auction on 8 June in Johannesburg is Saturday Live, a new limited-lot sale focusing on mid-range artworks by established artists, and will be held in conjunction with Strauss & Co’s inaugural Fine Wine Auction. These dynamic new initiatives are part of the company’s strategic plan to diversify its sale’s programme and will be held at Strauss & Co’s new expanded Houghton address.