Single-owner collections shine at Strauss & Co’s upbeat spring sale

688-lot sale totals R55 million
Top lot – Irma Stern’s A Watussi Woman with Mountains realises R10 242 000
3 new world records established including Judith Mason, Neil Rodger and Walter Meyer

JH Pierneef’s early Impressionistic work Gold & Green, Rooiplaat, N.T. sells for R2 732 200, 4 times the pre-sale estimate
Decorative Arts and Jewellery combined achieve a total of R12 million
Irma Stern, A Watussi Woman with Mountains, oil on canvas, in the original Zanzibar frame, 81,5 by 60 by 5cm including frame, R 9 000 000 – 12 000 000, Sold R 10 242 000

The friendly rivalry between two storied art cities, Cape Town and Pretoria, once again played itself out at auction, with Irma Stern and JH Pierneef topping Strauss & Co’s brisk spring sale held in Cape Town. A peak-period Stern portrait of a young Tutsi woman in a Rwandan landscape was the top lot, selling for R10.25 million, while Pierneef’s monumental study of interlaced camelthorn trees in a landscape near Thabazimbi fetched R2.7 million.

The R55-million grossing sale marked a welcome return to form for Pierneef and saw Strauss & Co establish three new world records for artists Judith Mason, Walter Meyer and Neil Rodger, with both Mason and Rodger achieving way above estimate when their canvases sold for R432 440 each. Bolstered by two prominent single-owner collections, Strauss & Co’s decorative arts sale realised R12.1 million, a fifth of the sale’s total value.

Other notable Pierneef lots on this sale include the majestic 1943 work Near Thabazimbi, Tvl (estimate R2 – 3 million), which features a mountain landscape dominated in the foreground by geometrically stylised camelthorn trees. The work is an expression of Pierneef at his most iconic. Pierneef’s attentiveness to the flora and geology of South Africa was cultivated during camping trips with his godfather, Anton van Wouw. Produced in 1918, At Pienaars River (Rooiplaat), Transvaal, Bushveld (estimate R700 000 – 1 000 000) records the luxurious simplicity the two artists were accustomed to on their expeditions.

Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, Gold & Green, Rooiplaat, N.T., oil on artist’s board, 45,5 by 60,5cm, R 500 000 – 700 000, Sold R 2 731 200 – The property of a Lady

Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, Near Thabazimbi, Tvl, oil on canvas, 40 by 55cm,

R 2 000 000 – 3 000 000, Sold R 2 731 200

Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, A View Through the Trees, R 800 000 – 1 200 000, Sold R 1 479 400A contemporary of Stern and Pierneef, Maggie Laubser is represented by two early portraits of female sitters. Painted in 1922, Portrait of a Young Girl (estimate R500 000 – 700 000) reveals Laubser’s technical prowess working in a more academic style, while Weemoed (Melancholy), (estimate R 800 000 – 1 200 000) exhibits a more expressionist approach, notably in her use of colour work. The latter work was acquired in 1931 and has remained in the same private collection ever since.

“I was greatly encouraged by the positive mood in the salesroom as well as the overall result of our sale,” said Frank Kilbourn, Strauss & Co’s executive chairperson. “Our 84% value sell-through rate was built on solid performances throughout the sale, including genuine enthusiasm for artists like Gregoire Boonzaier, Terence McCaw and Maud Sumner. The world records for Judith Mason, Walter Meyer and Neil Rodger, painters who all passed away in the last decade, suggests a welcome recalibration of appreciation for their work. Looking ahead, I draw confidence from the strong international interest shown in our decorative arts catalogue and high-value artists like Stern.”

Stern, the quintessential Cape innovator, started work on the spring sale’s top lot, A Watussi Woman with Mountains, in 1946 during her second trip to the Great Lakes region. It was first exhibited at Cape Town’s Argus Gallery in 1947, and subsequently at Galerie des Beaux-Arts, Paris, where it shared wall space with The Mauve Sari and Dahlias, important Stern works also handled by Strauss & Co in recent sales. Bina Genovese, Strauss & Co’s joint managing director, who handled the Evening Session, which included the Stern lot commented after the sale: “I was greatly encouraged by the animated mood in the saleroom throughout this session. There was strong bidding for the blue-chip moderns, with Stern and Pierneef once again demonstrating resilience, notwithstanding perceptions of a sluggish South African market for art.”

Of the dozen Stern works on offer, most were drawings and gouaches – they attracted solid interest. Stern’s Still Life with Gladioli and Fruit, a luminous oil painting emblematic of the artist’s contented late career, sold for R2.62 million.

Maggie Laubser, Weemoed (Melancholy), oil on board, 37 by 44,5cm, R 800 000 – 1 200 000, Sold R 967 300

Two Cape Town artists with close ties – Maggie Laubser and Johannes Meintjes – also confirmed their appeal at auction. Bidders competed for Laubser’s portrait of a downcast woman, Weemoed (Melancholy), which eventually sold for R967 300. Meintjes, who wrote an important early biography on Laubser, also performed well. His 1958 study of four bathers, Figures on a Beach, sold for R364 160.

Three Pretoria artists whose biographies are similarly enmeshed – JH Pierneef, Alexis Preller and Walter Battiss – also produced solid results. Pierneef’s values had been diluted by a recent fire sale, a short-term market aberration that has now been corrected by Strauss & Co.

A dusky landscape scene from 1931 in Pierneef’s monumental style, A View Through the Trees, sold for R1.48 million, bettering the high estimate. Four Pierneefs from the private collection of a lady, all acquired in the early 1990s, found new owners. The pick of the bunch was Gold & Green, Rooiplaat, N.T., a wondrous neo-impressionist study depicting a riverine landscape northeast of Pretoria, which sold for R2.73 million. Willow Trees, Pienaarsrivier, Roodeplaat, a gorgeous autumnal scene from the same collection, achieved R625 900.

Alexis Preller, who received vital support from Pierneef at the start of his career, has over the last decade cemented his status at auction. Coral Fish, an enigmatic study of two Indian Ocean fish, sold for R341 400, well above estimate. Walter Battiss, who published Preller’s first monograph in 1947 under his Maroola Press imprint, also showed consistency. Bus Stop, a teeming horizontal painting, bettered estimates and sold for R227 600. Two large sgraffito paintings showcasing Battiss’s skills as a colourist safely made their estimates.

Of course, the story of South African art cannot be told without referencing Johannesburg. Interest in sculptural work by Amadlozi Group artists – a non-racial avant-garde of Johannesburg artists assembled by dealer Egon Guenther – remains high, especially after a 2018 survey exhibition at Norval Foundation. Ezrom Legae’s Reclining Figure 1, an exemplary work from 1967 displayed on the original wooden base manufactured by Guenther, sold for R455 200.

William Kentridge, arguably Johannesburg’s most famous living artist, performed well too. The top Kentridge lots were The Artist’s Garden, Houghton, a brooding charcoal study of an intimate space, which sold for R796 600, and Domestic Scenes: A Wildlife Catalogue, an early work on paper composed of nine etchings, which realised R273 120.

Other living artists who shone were Georgina Gratrix, Zanele Muholi, Sam Nhlengethwa, Lionel Smit and Simon Stone. Muholi’s striking self-portrait Isililo XX, originally produced as an edition for Zeitz MOCAA, sold for R62 590. Nhlengethwa’s 2009 oil and collage of a jazz bassist sold to a telephone bidder for R216 200, well above estimate. Smit’s sculpture of a cleaved head titled, Mind the Gap, doubled the pre-sale estimate and sold for R284 500.

The daylong sale kicked off with three sessions devoted to decorative arts. Held twice annually in Cape Town, the decorative arts sale is much anticipated and an important contributor to Strauss & Co’s bottom line. The 471-lot spring catalogue included an international line up of ceramics, jewellery, silver, glass and furniture. Works from two prominent single-owner collections performed exceptionally well.

The top-selling jewellery lot from the Estate Late Mrs Sonia Lapin was a 4.70 carats diamond ring, which sold for R1.7 million. The Andrew Newall Collection, comprised mostly of Chinese and Japanese ceramics, silverware and objets, generated considerable international interest and realised R3.8 million from 131 lots sold.

The top-selling lot was a Qing Dynasty bronze silver-wire figure depicting the Chinese bodhisattva Guanyin. “This is how bidding should be on all lots,” said auctioneer Alastair Meredith when seven telephone bidders entered the chase for this 21cm-high statue, which eventually sold for R682 800.

A Qing Dynasty doucai bowl decorated with a dragon motif, also from the Newall Collection, surpassed its estimate and sold for R125 180. Interest was noteworthy for the Chinese blue-and-white ceramics, cloisonné vases and export silverware. Two Meiji period figures also struck a chord with collectors: an inlaid bronze sculpture of a monkey fetched R113 800, and gold-lacquer and ivory okimono of a woodsman sold for R102 420.

Collector interest in mid-twentieth century modern design, a category promoted by Strauss & Co specialist Sophie-Louise Fröhlich, was noticeable. A pair of Macassar ebony and rosewood console tables by David Linley fetched R 85 350. Also sold above estimate were six Dutch rosewood and teak “EJ” side chairs designed in 1962 by Cor Bontenbal for Fristho Franeker, which achieved R45 520.

“Strauss & Co once again showed its ability to handle important single-owner collections with works from the Strack, Lapin and Newall collections all finding buyers,” said Vanessa Phillips Strauss & Co joint managing director. “The Newall Collection especially is a case study of connoisseurship. For young collectors, this home-grown Cape Town collection highlights the importance of passion, focus and long-term commitment. Future buyers will always recognise these attributes.”

Strauss & Co’s next live auction is a Paris-themed sale in Johannesburg, scheduled for Monday, 11 November. The top three lots are by Alexis Preller, William Kentridge and Penny Siopis, acclaimed artists who each spent time in the French capital. The e-catalogue is now available to browse online. The next Saturday Live auction takes place on 19 October in Johannesburg.

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Press enquiries:
Bina Genovese | 083 680 9944 | 084 685 1671

Judith Mason, Roar, oil on board, 117,5 by 164cm, Sold R 432 440, World record for the artist