A 1939 painting by Irma stern entitled “Arab” sold at a Strauss & Co auction in Johannesburg on Monday 11 June for over R17 million. The reserve price for the painting was estimated at R7-9 million, and the final hammer price was R17, 267 000. The piece was sold to a South African collector, and is the second-highest price ever fetched for a Stern painting sold to a local buyer.
The international record price for a Stern is R26, 6 million, the hammer price of her painting “The Arab Priest”, purchased by the Qatar Museum of Orientalism on a Bonhams sale in London last year. In agreement with the South African Heritage Agency, this painting is temporarily on loan to the South African National Gallery, where it is currently on display. Stern’s “Two Arabs”, also dated 1939, set the South African record in September 2011, when it was sold on a Strauss & Co auction for R21, 166 000. Monday’s auction was the first time “The Arab” has appeared on the market. The painting, still in its original Zanzibar wooden frame, was purchased directly from the artist by the seller’s mother, and it has been in the same family for over 70 years. Irma Stern was born in 1894 in Schweizer-Reineke in the former Transvaal. She spent 7 years in Berlin from 1913 to 1920 making the acquaintance of the leading Expressionist painters of Die Brücke group. She was a founding member of the radical Novembergruppe, and was especially close to Max Pechstein who had admired her 1916 painting, The Eternal Child, now in the Rupert Art Foundation.A clear indication of the high regard in which Stern was held by her European contemporaries is her inclusion in 1927 in the Junge Kunst series of monographs on leading modernist painters such as Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, Kandinsky, Matisse, Picasso, Pechstein, Schmidt-Rotluff and Grosz. Volumes 49 and 50 were devoted to Picasso and volume 51 to Irma Stern. By 1939 Irma Stern had garnered international recognition and local notoriety for her remarkable paintings. She had enjoyed the success of several solo shows and exhibited with several of Europe’s leading modernist artists, won the prestigious Prix d’Honneur at the Bordeaux International Exhibition (1927) and traveled widely on the African continent to places such as Dakar and Zanzibar.Faced with the rise of National Socialism and increasing anti-Semitism, Stern deliberately chose to stay away from Europe after 1933. It is during this period that she developed her own visual language quite distinct from German Expressionism and produced works that many critics have hailed as her strongest.