An art expert has spotted a painting valued at up to £1m, which was once sold to help fund Nelson Mandela’s legal defence, being used as a noticeboard in a London flat.
The painting, Arab in Black, a 1939 work by Irma Stern – regarded as South Africa’s leading artist, whose works have recently been soaring in value – was recognised by Hannah O’Leary, a specialist in South African art at Bonhams auction house, during a valuation visit to the flat.
“I spotted this masterpiece hanging in the kitchen covered in letters, postcards and bills. It was a hugely exciting find, even before I learned of its political significance,” she said.
Irma Stern was born in 1894 to German Jewish parents at Schweizer- Reneke, a small town in the North West Province of South Africa, where her father established a thriving trading store and cattle farm. Interned during the Anglo Boer War (1899-1902) because of his pro-Boer sympathies, Irma and her brother were taken by their mother to Cape Town. After his release, the family went to Germany and thus began a pattern of regular travel, which was to characterize her life.
Intermittent periods of her childhood were spent in South Africa, however, the years of the First World War (1914-1918) were based in Germany. Irma Stern decided to become an artist, studying in Berlin and Weimer. Through the support of the Expressionist, Max Pechstein, her first solo exhibition was held in Berlin in 1916, yet on returning permanently to South Africa her work was initially derided.
Irma Stern travelled extensively in Europe and explored Southern Africa, Zanzibar and the Congo. These trips provided a wide range of subject matter for her paintings and gave her opportunities to acquire and assemble an eclectic collection of artefacts for her home.
A house named ‘The Firs’ in Rosebank, Cape Town, acquired in 1927 remained her home until her death in 1966. This residence became the Irma Stern Museum in 1971. It was established by Trustees of her estate and is administered by the University of Cape Town.
Irma Stern Museum
Irma Stern Museum (Cape Town):