Bonhams London is to sell a painting by South Africa’s leading artist, Irma Stern, titled ‘Arab in Black’ and valued at £700,000 to £1m (R20m), at its South African Sale this afternoon. The portrait of a young Arab man was once used to barter for the life of Nelson Mandela in the Treason Trial in the ‘50s.
The ANC Freedom Charter was officially adopted on 26 June 1955 at a Congress of the People in Kliptown. The meeting was broken up by a police and a total of 156 people were arrested, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Albert Luthuli and Oliver Tambo. They were charged with high treason for which the punishment was death.
The Treason Trial Defence Fund was founded to help pay the legal costs of the defence and to support their families. Cash donations were welcomed, as were donations of paintings, works of art and books that were then auctioned for the cause. Irma Stern herself donated a work to the cause, although she declined to make further donations, for fear of attracting attention from the authorities.
At that time ‘Arab in Black’ belonged to Betty Suzman the daughter of Max Sonnenberg MP, founder of Woolworths and her sister-in-law was Helen Suzman, the anti-apartheid activist. As the trial dragged on and funds ran low, the Suzmans generously donated ‘Arab in Black’ to one of the Johannesburg auctions.
Hannah O’Leary, Bonhams Head of South African Art, adds: “The buyer of the painting then immigrated to the UK in the 1970s and left the painting to a relative in their will. Imagine my surprise when I saw this masterpiece being used as a kitchen notice board in a modest flat in London, largely covered with letters, postcards and bills! It was a hugely exciting find, even before the amazing story of its provenance started to unravel”.
In 2011 Bonhams sold a similar Stern painting titled ‘Arab Priest’ for over £3m, setting a new world record for South Africa’s leading artist. Important though that painting was - a drumroll announcing to the world that modern and contemporary South African art had truly arrived on the word stage - this image ‘Arab in Black’ by Stern is in an entirely different category. It is nothing less than a key part of the fabric of South African history.
I have never been to an auction of this stature before and whilst it means donning a suit and feeling a bit poor for a while I'm still pretty excited. So many Bond movies, so many episodes of 'Flog It' under my belt.
Gordon Glyn-Jones lives and makes art in London.