'Portrait of a Pondo Woman' (1929), by Irma Stern. The daughter of German-Jewish farmers who emigrated to South Africa before her birth in 1894, Stern is probably the most collectible South African artist, fetching the highest prices at last May's London auction and at previous sales in South Africa. This work is estimated to sell for £300,000-£500,000, or about $600,000-$1 million.
South African Art Goes Global
A coming London auction shines a spotlight on the country's artists
By ADAM COHEN
January 26, 2008; Page W9
Two years ago, a 1940s self-portrait by the South African artist Gerard Sekoto sold at a London auction featuring "Exploration, Travel & Topographical Pictures," where it was included among such works as a 19th-century map of a French military attack on Peking and a watercolor of whirling dervishes. The Sekoto painting managed to fetch roughly $231,000 at today's exchange rate, a record for the artist.
Since then, the works of Mr. Sekoto, and those of other South African artists have found a devoted following among international collectors.
In May, Bonhams -- the London-based auction house that sold the Sekoto self-portrait -- held an auction devoted entirely to South African art, the first time such a major sale had been held outside of South Africa. That auction, which Bonhams estimated would bring in $1.6 million, ended up collecting more than $2.8 million.
Now Bonhams is preparing another sale of South African art, to be held in London on Wednesday Jan. 30. The auction includes 295 works, mostly 20th-century paintings, and is expected to bring in about $9.8 million.
The growing popularity of South African art with international collectors is part of a global art boom that has seen Westerners scouring emerging markets such as China, India and Brazil for works. Giles Peppiatt, director of South African art at Bonhams, says he has seen interest in South African art among collectors in the U.K., U.S. and Australia, countries where wealthy South African expatriates tend to congregate. There is also interest from other regions and from individuals and companies with no connection to South Africa, he says. "Up until now, South African painting has been sold in South Africa to South Africa buyers exclusively," Mr. Peppiatt says. (Twentieth-century African art's popularity in America is still dwarfed by collectors' preference for ancient African tribal art.)
With increased international exposure, prices for South African art are rising, angering some South Africans. The country's museums, which have few resources for buying artworks, are worried that the bulk of South Africa's artistic treasures are being shipped overseas. "Our acquisition budget this year is only 200,000 rand [slightly more than $28,000]," says Marilyn Martin, director of the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town. "We certainly can't buy anything on the international market for that."
Ms. Martin notes that, under apartheid, South African museums acquired paintings from white artists but largely ignored black artists such as Mr. Sekoto. "The prices of Sekoto's work now make it very difficult for us to redress the past," she says.
The South African Heritage Resource Agency, which is responsible for preserving the country's archaeological sites, architectural masterpieces and fine art, monitors the export of all artworks more than 50 years old. Two paintings included in the Jan. 30 auction, one by Mr. Sekoto (1913-93) and another by Irma Stern (1894-1966), have been given temporary export permits and must be returned to South Africa shortly after the auction by whoever buys them, according to Mr. Peppiatt.
Other museum-quality works included in the auction have full export clearance or are already outside of South Africa and not subject to government rules. The most expensive price estimate in the sale is for a 1929 oil painting titled "Portrait of a Pondo Woman," by Ms. Stern. The woman's melancholy stare, her stark white robes and the deep primary colors of the mountain landscape in the background give the picture a haunting, simple beauty. The painting is expected to sell for roughly $589,000 to $982,000 and isn't subject to the export restrictions.
Ms. Stern, the daughter of German-Jewish farmers who immigrated to South Africa before her birth, is probably the most collectible South African artist, fetching the highest prices at May's London auction. Her portraits, colorful and sometimes abstract, show Africans as vibrant individuals, rather than the exotic curiosities depicted by earlier colonial artists. Ms. Stern also is known for her still lifes. The auction includes 33 of her works.
Mr. Sekoto may be South Africa's most famous black painter. Born in rural South Africa in 1913, Mr. Sekoto learned to paint at a Lutheran mission school. As a young man, he lived in Sophiatown, a blacks-only township on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The Johannesburg Art Gallery bought one of his paintings in 1940, making him the first black artist included in that collection. According to legend, under South Africa's apartheid laws, Mr. Sekoto had to pose as a janitor to see his own work hanging in the gallery.
After leaving South Africa for Paris in 1947, Mr. Sekoto made a living as a jazz pianist while continuing to paint. Much of his work, both before and during his self-imposed exile, shows township scenes, capturing the poverty and hardship of life in segregated South Africa. The Bonhams sale features 25 of his works, including one of the paintings subject to a temporary export permit, "Boys Around a Brazier, Eastwood," an oil depicting barefoot boys standing near a coal fire, cooking on a makeshift stove.
Americans can view the lots at bonhams.com and must get in touch with Bonhams in advance if they want to bid over the phone.
Write to Adam Cohen at email@example.com