The big three – Irma Stern, Maggie Laubser and J.H. Pierneef – were central pillars of Strauss & Co’s monumental late-summer auction in Cape Town, which generated a record turnover of R70.6 million. The superb result, achieved on a solid 84% sell-through rate, surpassed the previous single-auction high of R66.8 million – set in Johannesburg in 2010 – by R3.8 million.
“This superb result sends a strong and encouraging message to the market,” said Frank Kilbourn, Strauss & Co’s chairman. “There was a significant demand for high quality work across all the categories. I am particularly pleased by performance of the contemporary work we offered, especially young painters Jessica Webster and Georgina Gratrix and photographers Pieter Hugo and Mikhael Subotzky.”
Young Arab, a gestural portrait by Irma Stern, was the evening’s highest grossing single lot and sold for R13.6 million, within its pre-sale estimate. Produced during the artist’s visit to the Congo in 1942, the work was first exhibited at the Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg, in 1942, where it was acquired for £40.
There was healthy bidding for Maggie Laubser’s luminous study, Shepherd Seated with his Flock, which sold for R3.97 million. Painted during the artist’s retreat to her family farm, Oortmanspoort, and acquired at the 1936 Empire Exhibition in Johannesburg, the work carried a high estimate of R2.5 million.
The first lot to generate post-sale applause was J.H. Pierneef’s late-career study, Bushveld Landscape, featuring his beloved acacias as central subject. Painted in 1956 and exhibited on the 1964 Pierneef Festival in Johannesburg, guest auctioneer Dendy Easton knocked the work down for R2 million (inclusive price R2.27 million). The same buyer paid R2.5 million for Pierneef’s fetching study of the Western Cape farming community of McGregor, surpassing the pre-sale high estimate by R1 million.
While canonical moderns continue to perform solidly, the biggest surprise of Strauss & Co’s first live auction of 2017 was registered during a dedicated session for decorative arts. Rival bidders chased after two nineteenth-century imperial bushels – standardised brass measuring containers – offered by a brother and sister born into a local merchant family.
Lot 324, an engraved bushel used by the government of the Cape of Good Hope, sold for R1.87 million, well over its high estimate of R100,000. A similar measure used by the Transvaal government, which carried a pre-sale high estimate of R80,000, sold for R920,000.
“Dynamite comes in small packages,” said Vanessa Phillips, Strauss & Co’s joint managing director and a specialist in decorative arts. She was referring to three stoneware pieces by Dame Lucie Rie, which all surpassed their high estimates, and a range of delicate Chinese snuff bottles, which attracted international buyers.
Two silver table lamps designed by Patrick Mavros, each incorporating a family of vervet monkeys, which sold for R477,456 and R443,352, also contributed to the hefty R11,55 million turnover in decorative arts.
The evening sale of important South African and international art, which generated a total of R53.4 million in sales, was buoyed by strong buyer interest in Erik Laubscher and Robert Hodgins. Rival bidders chased after Laubscher’s Overberg in Winter, a symphony of complementary greens painted in 1996, which sold for R1.07 million. Egged on by a group of excited friends, a buyer on the floor competed for – and eventually won – Hodgins’ 2005 study, An Old Couple, for R1 million, doubling the pre-sale high estimate.
Other notable works by blue-chip artists included a charcoal drawing of an East Rand landscape from William Kentridge’s fifth stop-animation film, Felix in Exile (1994), which sold for R1.04 million. There was robust bidding for Jean Welz’s serene study, Still Life with a Bowl of Figs, which sold for R886,704.
Photography, long treated as a stepchild by collectors, performed exceptionally well. Pieter Hugo’s still life, In Tyrone Brand’s Bedroom, attracted enthusiastic bidding. It doubled its pre-sale high estimate, fetching R125,048. An important early work by Mikhael Subotzky, Preacher, Dwarsrivier Prison (0053), a panoramic study of a Sunday church service in an outlying Cape prison, sold for R90,944.
Bina Genovese, Strauss & Co’s joint managing director, said: “This sale caps a festive week of events with our clients. We are delighted that sellers entrust their work to our company, and are proud to achieve benchmark results for their work.”
Image: Irma Stern, Young Arab, sold for R13.6 million