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Strauss & Co shatters R100-million (£5.2 M) barrier with a 93% sale rate
Irma Stern, Meditation, Zanzibar. Estimate: R 15 000 000 - 20 000 000. Sold: R 17 070 000. The Shill Collection.

CAPE TOWN.- A packed salesroom punctuated by enthusiastic applause acknowledged the fierce rivalry among collectors for top paintings, unseen in decades, at Strauss & Co’s red-letter autumn sale. The sale culminated in a record-breaking tally of R106 million (£5.5M) in sales at a value sell-through rate of 93%. This performance is unrivalled in the marketplace.

Irma Stern cemented her status as the most sought-after South African artist at auction when three paintings from her celebrated Zanzibar period (1939–45) sold for a combined value of R39 million (£2M).

Adding to the buoyant mood was the sale of Alexis Preller’s seminal cabinet painting Collected Images (Orchestration of Themes) for just over R10 million (£521,000), a new world record.

Frank Kilbourn, Strauss & Co’s chairman, said: “This the first-ever art auction in South Africa to achieve over R100 million in sales. The sell-through rate of 93% is also unprecedented. It is a historic moment for the company and a wonderful way to celebrate our tenth year of business.”

Kilbourn added: “This outstanding result is a major vote of confidence for Strauss & Co and the South African art market in general. We are especially grateful to our clients, both buyers and sellers, for entrusting their works with us.”

The top-selling lot at Strauss & Co’s sale was a previously unrecorded Stern portrait of an Omani nobleman from the court of the Sultanate of Zanzibar. Painted during Stern’s second visit to Zanzibar in 1945 and acquired directly from the artist by the late collector Sol Munitz, Stern’s painting Arab sold to a telephone bidder for R20 484 000.

The Munitz Collection consigned 15 lots to the sale, including Stern’s The Mauve Sari from 1946, which sold for R14 794 000, and Gerard Sekoto’s Saturday Afternoon, a bucolic street scene from his esteemed Eastwood period, which sold for R3 072 600.

Paintings consigned from the Shill Collection also achieved outstanding prices. They included the world-record Preller work, as well as Stern’s 1939 portrait of a young woman wearing a yellow headscarf, Meditation, Zanzibar, which sold for R17 070 000 attracting the attention of a first-time Stern buyer. Also from the Shill Collection, Gwelo Goodman’s Interior Looking Out, Stellenrust sold for R216 220 and a small bronze of a bull by sculptor Sydney Kumalo achieved R421 060.

The sale also included two important collections of decorative arts, notably a fine selection of Chinese and Japanese ceramics and works art from the Dr J.R. and Mary Strong Collection. International bidders vied by telephone for the Chinese pieces. A celadon and beige jade two-handled vase with five-clawed dragon motifs from the late Qing dynasty sold R227 600. A robin’s egg blue-glazed vase trounced the pre-sale estimate, achieving R136 560, while a pale celadon jade brush washer fetched R96 730.

There was also considerable interest in the Strong Collection’s carved pieces. A trio of Chinese snuff bottles, including a pink tourmaline example depicting a qilin (mythological hoofed creature), sold for R54 624. A nineteenth-century wood netsuke depicting a seated tiger achieved R34 140, the top price for a netsuke.

The top lot from the Dr Johan Bolt Collection of important Cape furniture was a rare Southern Cape Neoclassical jonkmanskas from the early 19th century, which sold for R512 100. An important south-western Cape Neoclassical settee exhibited at the Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag, in 2002 sold for R227 600.

Bina Genovese, Strauss & Co’s joint managing director, said: “This sale further underscores Strauss & Co’s ability to handle top works from important single-owner collections. Our business is fundamentally about relationships. Consigning major collections for auction takes years, often decades of dedicated commitment to a single client.”

Vanessa Phillips, Strauss & Co’s joint managing director, first met Dr Strong in 1978. Her association with collectors Mavis and Louis Shill dates back to the late 1990s. These longstanding relationships with top-tier collectors are a hallmark Strauss & Co’s business model, which emphasises provenance and quality.

Added Genovese: “Many of the top lots had not traded hands in decades. We were greatly encouraged by the public response to our preview exhibition, which drew unprecedented numbers of visitors and bidders to the Vineyard Hotel to view these important pieces. Presentation, along with the Strauss & Co modus operandi contributed to the success of this sale.”

Visiting British auctioneer and art specialist Dendy Easton handled the premier evening session at Strauss & Co’s pacesetting sale, which noticeably bucked a recent trend of sluggish bidding. Buyer appetite for quality works was immediately evident when Easton opened the session with two impressive oils by Gwelo Goodman. Both works achieved solid prices: a historic picture of the Old Town House in Cape Town sold for R546 240, while a landscape titled Full of Flushed Heat – Tulbagh sold for R512 100.

JH Pierneef is Strauss & Co’s second-highest grossing artist and once again demonstrated his broad appeal. There was a palpable buzz in the salesroom when his 11 by 13,5cm casein, Golden Gate, came up for sale – the work eventually sold for R227 600. Extensive Landscape, an evening-coloured oil on board painted in 1926, sold for R398 300. An Extensive Mountain Landscape, formerly owned by the Scottish family Linney, achieved R 375 540.

Post-war artists Peter Clarke, Erik Laubscher and Cecil Skotnes also drew strong bids. Painted in 1960, Clarke’s architectural landscape, Farm House, sold for R284 500. Icon, a tall carved, incised and painted wood panel by Skotnes from 1965, sold for R512 100. Laubscher’s mid-period Still Life with Jug, Bowl and Fruit from the 1960s confirmed his status at auction and sold for R910 400.

Stern performed remarkably well across all categories of her work. A 1937 work titled Still Life with Ginger Plant sold for R6 145 000. All six works consigned by the Irma Stern Trust Collection found buyers, including two gouaches, both titled Two Women, from 1953 and 1961, which fetched R153 630 and R142 250 respectively.

Other notable sales included a strong performance by painters Judith Mason and Walter Meyer, both represented by four works apiece. Mason’s oil on board Horse was her best performing work, selling for R204 840, while Meyer’s sunburnt study of Smithfield in the Free State sold for R108 100.

The daylong sale commenced with three sessions devoted to the decorative arts. A painted and glazed ceramic by Esias Bosch depicting a vase of indigenous flowers in a landscape, sold for R739 700, doubling the previous record achieved at Strauss & Co’s October 2018 sale. The decorative arts catalogue brought in a total of R10.6 million in sales, underscoring the importance of this discriminating collector category.

Founded in 2009, Strauss & Co is the world’s leading auction house for South African art. Its next sale will be held at the Wanderers Club in Johannesburg in May. Following November’s well-received focus on under appreciated artists working in the period between 1910 and 1994, the forthcoming sale will cast a spotlight on influential art teachers and their students. Entries close end March.

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