Million pound work used as kitchen notice board in modest London flat

Arab in Black.jpg

Arab in Black by South Africa’s leading artist, Irma Stern, is to be sold at Bonhams sale of South African Art in London on 9 September. It is estimated to sell for £700,000 to £1m (R20m). 

This powerful image from Stern’s highly regarded Zanzibar period, is not only one of the artist’s finest works, it also has a fascinating past ­- from its important role in the political history of South Africa to its recent fate as a notice board in a modest London apartment.

In the early 1960s, Arab in Black was put up for auction to raise money for the defence of Nelson Mandela and his co-defendants in South Africa’s Treason Trial. Mandela had been arrested in 1955 on a charge of high treason which carried the death penalty. The Treason Trial Defence Fund was set up to raise money for legal fees and to support the defendants’ families. Irma Stern herself donated a work to the cause.The trial ran from 1956 until March 1961 when all the accused were found not guilty.

In the 1970s, the painting came to Britain when the buyer emigrated to the UK and was subsequently bequeathed to the current owner. For many years Arab in Black hung in a London flat and was used as a notice board. Bonhams Head of South African Art, Hannah O’Leary recalls the moment when she discovered the work, “I was undertaking a routine valuation when 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.”

The painting was originally owned by art collector, Betty Suzman, whose father, Max Sonnenberg MP, founded the South African chain store Woolworths (no connection to the American company of the same name). Through marriage Betty became sister-in-law to Helen Suzman, the anti-apartheid activist and sole opposition MP during the apartheid years. Betty’s daughter is the actor and director Janet Suzman.

In 2011 Bonhams sold Stern’s painting ‘Arab Priest’ for over £3m, setting a new world record for South Africa’s leading artist.

Note on the Treason Trial 1956-1961

In 1955, the African National Congress (ANC) sent a large number of volunteers into the townships and the countryside to collect 'freedom demands' from the people of South Africa. The resulting Freedom Charter was officially adopted on 26 June 1955 at a Congress of the People in Kliptown. The meeting was attended by approximately three thousand delegates from the ANC and other anti-apartheid groups but was broken up by a police raid on the second day. A total of 156 people were arrested, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Albert Luthuli and Oliver Tambo. They were charged with "high treason and a countrywide conspiracy to use violence to overthrow the present government and replace it with a communist state". The punishment for high treason was death.

In 1961, the case against the accused was judged not to have been made and the accused were discharged. Three years later Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and six others were eventually given a life sentence for treason at the Rivonia Trial of 1964.

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