The first-ever auction devoted exclusively to celebrated South African modernist artist Irma Stern confirmed her pre-eminence in Africa’s vibrant art market when all 140 works offered by leading auction house Strauss & Co found buyers. Held in Cape Town, Stern’s home for five decades, the marathon six-hour sale drew a full house of buyers and over 750 online bidders. The white-glove auction earned R36.9 million / US$2.3 million, easily surpassing the pre-sale estimate.
Rivalry to secure works was intense and bidding often pitted room, telephone and online bidders against one another. Jubilant applause greeted the sale of a number of lots. Presented in the centenary year of Stern’s controversial South African debut, the enthusiastic response by collectors owed a great deal to the once-in-a-generation offering of 124 artworks from the Irma Stern Trust Collection. The trust was established following the artist’s death in 1966 to promote art within and outside South Africa.
Frank Kilbourn, Strauss & Co’s chairperson says: “The outcome of this sale is a celebration of a great artist, Irma Stern, and a positive statement for the African art market. The diversity of works released by the Irma Stern Trust Collection made the sale attractive to the widest possible range of buyers. It is gratifying to note that a third of the works sold in this landmark sale went to new customers.”
The top-selling lot was a 1941 portrait of a Cape Muslim clairvoyant in pink headscarf from Stern’s golden period, sold for R7.5 million / US$469 425. Six out of the top ten works sold for more than R1 million/ US$65 000. The sale featured paintings, drawings, prints, books and a rare ceramic piece, many depicting women, and collectively encapsulated the arc of Stern’s dynamic output over five decades, from 1920 to 1965.
Stern held over 100 solo exhibitions and represented South Africa at the Venice Biennale throughout the 1950s. She has been an auction bellwether for decades. Since its founding in 2009 Strauss & Co has established multiple records for Stern’s highly sought-after portraits and still lifes.