R20m Stern painting was being used as notice board

  • Irma Stern HOME
Stern's painting that helped save Madiba's life may become the most valuable SA painting ever after Bonhams' September 9 auction
by ANT KATZ | Jul 27, 2015

May become #1

A painting by acclaimed Jewish SA artist, Irma Stern, titled "Arab in Black" and valued at as much as R20 million, was discovered hanging in an English kitchen where it was being used as notice board, UK auction house Bonhams said last week.

The painting will be offered for sale on September 9 during the second “South African Sale” of 2015 at their posh New Bond Street premises in London. "Arab in Black" will be Lot 12 and is expected to fetch between R14 million and R20 million.

Irma Stern

RIGHT: “The painting that helped save Nelson Mandela's life” will be sold on September 9 and may set a new record

The painting, which has wonderful "Struggle credentials", had been almost lost to the world, say auctioneers, Bonhams. "Arab in Black" by the leading South African artist Irma Stern, has been linked to Nelson Mandela, they say.

Bonhams has advertised the artwork as the painting that helped save Nelson Mandela's life, as Stern had donated the painting to raise money for Madiba's legal defence at the Treason Trial. Mandela, who was eventually found not guilty of treason, had been arrested in 1955 on a charge of high treason, which carried the death penalty.

The painting went to Britain in the 1970s when the original buyer emigrated to the UK and was subsequently bequeathed to the current owner, who has chosen to remain anonymous.

The original owner was art collector Betty Suzman, whose father, Max Sonnenberg  founded Woolworths. Betty was the sister-in-law of anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman and her daughter is acclaimed actor and director Janet Suzman.

Hannah O'Leary, Bonhams' head of South African art, found the painting in London when she went to a client's apartment to appraise their art collection. "I was undertaking a routine valuation when I spotted this masterpiece hanging in the kitchen covered in letters, postcards and bills," O'Leary said in a statement. "It was a hugely exciting find even before I learned of its political significance."

"Arab in Black" signed and dated "Irma Stern  in 1939 on the upper left corner" and bears the inscription: "Arab in Black to stretcher and frame (verso) oil on canvas 61 x 51cm (24 x 20 1/16in) within an original Zanzibar frame".


Who is Irma Stern?

Irma Stern was an expressionist artist. She was born in 1894 in Schweizer Reneke in the then South African Republic, later Transvaal. She was a major South African artist who achieved national and international recognition in her lifetime and her art fetches the highest prices for a South African artist. Stern died in Cape Town on August 23, 1966.

Earlier this year, Stern’s “Still Life with African Woman” fetched R17,6 million at Bonhams London's first biannual South African sale of 2015. The sale had been dominated by Stern’s work with nine of her paintings on sale. “African Woman” in a replica Zanzibari frame, fetched the top price of almost R19 million.

In March 2011, Bonhams achieved a then-record auction price overseas for any South African work of art when Stern's “Arab Priest” (1945) fetched R17,2 million.

Her “Two Arabs” sold for R21,1 million at a South African auction held by Strauss&Co, also in 2011, making it the highest price ever fetched by a South African painting. Who knows, this record may tumble on September 9.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Denis Solomons 07 Sep
    Oh some people have such talent;
    Irma Stern;
    imagine having a painting of yours that is worth R20 million .
    Bless her soul .


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