In February, London auction house Bonhams hosted the first of its twice-yearly South Africa sales. The star of the two-day auction, which totaled £1.7 million ($2.4 million), was the cover lot, an oil by Maggie Laubser titled Indian Girl with Poinsettias that sold for £276,000, nearly doubling its pre-sale high estimate of £150,000. Like Irma Stern, who ranks as one of the most sought-after South African artists alongside J.H. Pierneef and Gerard Sekoto, Laubser was heavily influenced by classic German Expressionism.
Other notable highlights from the Bonhams sale included Alexis Prellers Still Life with Crocodile, which more than doubled its pre-sale high estimate of £60,000, going for £132,000. Preller, a prominent postwar painter whose early infatuation with Paul Gauguin gave way in the 1950s to an exploration of vernacular motifs and themes, is on the cusp of rediscovery. Veteran art historian Esme Berman, working with artist Karel Nel, is due to publish a new book on him in October; the project is sponsored by Gordon Schachat, a prominent but secretive Johannesburg collector with a significant holding of the artist’s work.
Preller is not the only South African artist whose values have spiked recently. At the inaugural sale of the new Johannesburg auction house Strauss & Co. on March 9, a number of artists with modest international profiles achieved records, among them Dutch-born sculptor Anton van Wouw. Van Wouw’s bronze statuette of a demure Afrikaner maiden, presented as a wedding anniversary gift to former Boer republic president Marthinus Steyn in 1912, tripled its high estimate, selling for R946,900 ($103,000).
Austrian-born architect turned painter Jean Welz, who in the 1920s and ’30s collaborated on projects with architects Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier before immigrating to South Africa, also achieved a new record. A 1945 still life featuring three vessels on a table and executed in Welz’s typically muted earthen palette achieved R1.23 million, surpassing its high estimate of R900,000.
That result had particular significance for the man wielding the gavel at the sale: Stephan Welz, a son of the painter. A longtime fixture in South African auction circles, the younger Welz sold his company, Stephan Welz & Co., which has been affiliated with Sotheby’s for a number of years, to businessmen Mark Kretschmer and Jack Rosevitz in 2007. Although he cited health reasons for the sale at the time, late last year he came out of retirement to head up Strauss & Co., a pedigreed company whose directors include Elizabeth Bradley, heir to the Toyota South Africa empire, and Conrad Strauss, a chairman of Standard Bank who was selected because his name appeals to both English and Afrikaans speakers.
Despite pre-sale jitters, Strauss & Co. set a new record for an auction of South African paintings in South Africa, achieving a total of just over R38 million ($4 million), a far better outcome than at Bonhams.
For rival auctioneer Graham Britz, who on May 7 will be auctioning paintings by Stern, Pierneef, Laubser, Preller, and other South African artists from the estate of murdered mining tycoon Brett Kebble, Strauss & Co.’s record presents a personal challenge. He told ARTINFO that he hopes to beat the R38 million total (he's been quoted in local media as estimating a result in excess of R100 million/$11 million), as well as the nearly record-breaking R7.15 million achieved at the sale by Stern's Magnolias in an Earthenware Pot. With local media interest in Kebble’s unsolved murder in 2005 already having generated buzz, Britz’s optimism that his celebrity-driven sale will break records is not without substance. Certainly market confidence is on his side.