Few people get to work in an office alongside a painting that could be worth R16-million. This could be due to the fact that there are only a few paintings in this country worth this amount and perhaps few people would be able to get any work done in the company of such national treasures.
For almost the last four months Alex Richards, the head of paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture, and his colleagues at Cape Town’s Strauss & Co offices in Newlands have been working under the watchful gaze of Irma Stern’s titular Young Arab. She encountered her subject during a trip to the Congo in the early forties. Stern made portraits of a range of subjects, but it is those termed as “Arab” that are the most sought after. Her artwork dubbed Two Arabs sold for R21,1-million at an auction held by Strauss&Co in 2011. Stern’s depictions of Muslim Africans were primarily captured during visits to Zanzibar in 1939 and 1945, according to art historian Michael Godby. This makes this Stern painting rare.
Due to its Congolese influence, Young Arab would have been included in an exhibition in Elizabethville at the end of her stay in the Congo; and, again, at her so-called ‘Congo Exhibition’ at the Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg, in December 1942. Presently, it takes pride of place at the centre of a large open office at Strauss & Co, where other lots are located that will go under the hammer for the upcoming auction in Cape Town on Monday March 6.
Their offices are like a veritable museum with artworks covering the walls such as a (William) Kentridge, (Robert) Hodgins and an unusual artwork by Cecil Skotnes, an unconventional still life in that it is not rendered in his distinctive African inspired language. In the auction house’s boardroom are other standout works for the auction; two Pierneefs, Acacia Trees (1933) and Bushveld Landscape (1956) boasting his signature rendering of trees, which contrast with depictions of barren Namibian landscapes, Drought Nambia (1989) Swarkop Riverbed, Namibia, by Erik Laubscher. This is the best room to occupy in the office given there are also another two Sterns to enjoy; one depicting canal ways in Venice and a still life boasting this season’s fruit, figs.
As art collectors and curators can attest it is through living with an artwork that its details and beauty starts to slowly reveal itself. Richards came to appreciate Stern’s Young Arab painting more as time went by.
“The more time I spent with him (the subject in Stern’s painting) the more I started to notice. I love the thick dollops of vibrant colour in his turban in contrast to his smooth, flawless skin - he seems to exude a regal aura, he really has a presence. His open shirt suggests the heat and humidity of his context, which seems to echo the scorching temperatures in Cape Town at this time of year,” says Richards.
From Edwardian brooches, Victorian scent bottles, Russian cigarette cases to Danish sliver and Ming Dynasty bowls from the 1600s retrieved from shipwrecks off Cape Town’s coastline, decorative arts specialist, Vanessa Phillips, has been handling a vast array of objects for the upcoming auction. She studies the objects closely, photographing each at every angle for overseas buyers.
“The decorative arts isn’t like SA painting; I hop around the universe, looking at objects from Japan, China and each medium is different from porcelain, to silver,” says Phillips.
“This has made me extremely fickle; I fall in love with a different object every day. I see them differently over time too, according to the light in the room.”
Richards’s fixation with Stern’s painting has also been shaped by its placement.
“Young Arab hangs on a dark navy blue wall in our office, this accentuates his vivid orange form, the picture starts to illuminate its surroundings acting like a bright light drawing the viewer in like a moth to a flame,” he says.
It is hoped a buyer with over ten million in their pocket will fall under the spell this painting appears to cast. It is estimated to sell for between R12 to R16 million, though it is possible it may fetch a higher sum. In 1995 when it was last up for sale it fetched R209 000 against pre-sale estimates of R130 000 - 160 000. These figures show how Stern’s art (and indeed other 20th century works) have risen so sharply in value in the last couple of decades. Given this auction is expected to generate around R60-million, Stern’s Young Arab will be responsible for a good deal of the revenue, causing a few sleepless nights among the staff at Strauss & Co. So much hangs on the power of the compelling gaze of Stern’s young Congolese man.
Richards will be thrilled if it finds a buyer, but admits he will miss observing the Stern everyday. Fortunately, working at an art auction house means another desirable artwork, maybe even a Stern, will find its way into the office.
Strauss & Co’s Important South African & International Art, Decorative Arts & Jewellery auction will be held from 11am at the The Vineyard Hotel, Newlands, Cape Town on March 6. The public is invited to view the lots from March 3 to 5 from 10 to 5pm. Visit www.straussart.co.za to peruse the lots.