London – It is considered to be one of Vladimir Tretchikoff’s great masterpieces and is one of the best-known and most reproduced of his works. Yet for years his Lost Orchid was itself considered lost. Having not been seen in public since it was acquired from the artist in 1955, the painting has finally re-emerged and will now be offered at Bonhams’ Modern and Contemporary African Art sale on 27 March at New Bond Street, London. It has an estimate of £150,000 – 200,000.

Vladimir Griegorovich Tretchikoff (South African, 1913-2006), Lost Orchid. Oil on canvas. Estimate: £150,000-200,000

Prints of works by Vladimir Tretchikoff (South African, 1913-2006) sold in their tens of millions and made him the best selling artist of the 20th century. When Lost Orchid first appeared in reproduction in 1950s it was instantly a best-seller and was one of the top ten best-selling prints in the United Kingdom. The original painting was thought to have reappeared in 2009, however the lack of a discard matchstick on the steps in the work, and the crossing of the two ‘ff’s’ in Tretchikoff’s signature, revealed that it was not in fact the Lost Orchid which has been so extensively reproduced in print form. Now however, the true Tretchikoff masterpiece will come to auction for the first time.

Giles Peppiatt, Bonhams Director of African Art, said: “He may have been known as the “King of Kitsch” to some, but for many Vladimir Tretchikoff is the “people’s painter”. We expect the Lost Orchid will blossom at Bonhams. Tetchikoff’s most recognisable work, Chinese Girl, was sold by Bonhams in 2013 for £1million, and the subject of that work, Monika Sing-Lee, once remarked that, ‘my favourite picture of his has always been Lost Orchid.’”

Tretchikoff  favoured a style he called ‘symbolic realism’, which is most prominent in his flower studies. His fascination with flowers probably started in his youth in China, where they can symbolise a quality or idea. Orchids had a special meaning for Tretchikoff. When he was living in Indonesia under the Japanese occupation, an unknown admirer used to send boxes of the flowers. The shop that was delivering the flowers refused to tell him the buyer’s name, and he never found it out. ‘Somebody evidently had faith in me’, he remembered. ‘And it grew to mean so very much, when all around was desolation, poverty and suffering.’ He even did a painting called the Lady of the Orchids, a fictitious portrait of his admirer.

The first version of Lost Orchid was done in Batavia (Jakarta). One morning, shortly after the Japanese had released him from the prisoner-of-war camp, he saw an orchid lying in a street. ‘Fresh dewdrops shone on its leaves and for me it was as if the flower wept’, remembered Tretchikoff. ‘The orchid represents life,’ he explained. ‘People use it and throw it away afterwards, without thinking. That is why now it is abandoned, lost, crying!’

The work, dated ‘1948’, was finished after the war, when he joined his family in Cape Town. Tretchikoff first exhibited this painting on his 1949 tour of South Africa. It was in Johannesburg, businessman John Schlesinger purchased the work. Tretchikoff had immigrated to South Africa three years before as an employee of an advertising agency owned by the Schlesingers, which remained his day job until he became a full-time painter. John Schlesinger bought Lost Orchid for his wife, who he had courted with orchids.

In 1952, Tretchikoff accepted an invitation to hold his first exhibition in the USA.

Wanting to display his best work, he asked Schlesinger to lend him Lost Orchid. He spent five years touring to record crowds. Eventually, the artist bought it back, noting; ‘He made me cough up three times what he had paid for it, but in view of its success I suppose it was fair.’

In attendance at the show in Chicago, where attendance exceeded fifty thousand, was the New York actor, Mark Dawson (1920-2007), who saw the exhibition while on a tour with a Broadway production. The Theatre World Award winner and US Marine Corps veteran wanted to buy the Lost Orchid and yet the painting was too expensive for Dawson, and the artist would not lower the price. However, as the work could only be delivered after the tour, nearly two years later, the actor used the delay to save up the money for the purchase.

In 1955, the tour was over, Tretchikoff wrote to the buyer to let him know that the painting would soon be in his possession. The artist added that Schlesinger, the original owner, wanted to have the painting back, ‘Now he says that he misses it badly, particularly that the reproductions of the Orchid are distributed throughout the world.’ However, the painting indeed went to Mark Dawson, who kept the Lost Orchid for the rest of his life. It remained in his family ever since.

Sale: Modern and Contemporary African Art Sale
Location: New Bond Street, London
Date: Wednesday 27 March

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