SOUTH AFRICAN ART SALE CLEARS £7.1M AT BONHAMS

Jacob Hendrik Pierneef’s great painting ‘The Baobab Tree’ sold on 10 September 2008 at Bonhams fourth South African Art sale for a whopping £826,400, creating a new record price for South African Art.

baobab-tree.jpgThe pre-sale estimate of £200,000 to £300,000 was almost tripled at the sale, and in doing so toppled the previous record holder, a painting by Irma Stern, which made around £500,000 in a previous sale. The result is part of a trend of world record prices being repeatedly broken at Bonhams sales of South African Art in London. The sale total of £7.1m or R100m is £2m up on the last South African Sale at Bonhams held on 30 January 2008.

The painting of baobab trees by Jacob Hendrik Pierneef (1886-1957) is a powerful illustration by the artist who was selected to bring South African Art to London when he decorated South Africa House in Trafalgar Square in the 1930’s.

Bonhams fourth and largest sale of South African Art – the 450 lots were divided into two sales, one at Bonhams in Knightsbridge on 9 September and one at Bonhams in Bond Street on 10 September – was expected to set new records and certainly did not disappoint.

The Baobab Tree has an interesting history. It was presented to the South African High Commissioner to Britain in the 1930’s, Charles te Water, as a gift after he visited Pierneef’s studio and admired the unfinished picture.

The picture was exhibited at London’s Tate Gallery in an ‘Overseas Exhibition of South African Art’, in 1948.

While Charles Te Water was serving as the South African High Commissioner in London, Pierneef was given the commission to paint the murals for South Africa House in London. On 27 June 1933 the Pierneef family left Pretoria for London. Pierneef completed the murals by May 1934 and accepted a further commission from Te Water to paint five works for the dining room in South Africa House. The room was officially opened on 31 May 1934 and was known as the ‘Pierneef Room’.

Charles te Water was close friends with the artist and June te Water, his granddaughter recounts that on a visit to Pierneef’s studio her grandfather saw ‘The Baobab Tree’ languishing, unfinished in a corner of the atelier. Te Water encouraged Pierneef that the work was a fine painting and that he should complete the picture. This he duly did and then presented the painting to te Water.

This painting is unquestionably a product of Pierneef at his finest. The majestic baobab tree stands proud dominating the landscape, with the five people at the foot of the tree and the signs of human habitation in the background, dwarfed by comparison. It is reasonable to assume that The Baobab Tree was painted around 1934. It is certainly consistent with Pierneef’s style at the time and there is another painting of a baobab tree painted in1934 which in terms of style and composition is very similar to The Baobab Tree. The tree and, indeed the landscape and figures, have an emblematic quality. This painting, therefore, is a magnificent example of Pierneef’s achievement in creating a landscape painting that is uniquely and essentially South African.

The 1948 Tate exhibition was the first major undertaking by the South African Association of Arts. A panel of Association members with the assistance of John Rothenstein of the Tate formed the selection committee and the exhibition subsequently toured various centres in the United Kingdom and Europe.

The Bonhams South African Art Sale on September 9 and 10 also included the strongest collection of Irma Stern’s yet seen in London, no fewer than 38 paintings. The majority of works by Stern beat their pre-sale estimates. Among them were a number at the £300,000 mark. Lot 321, Malay lady in green made £389,000; Lot 350 Still life of gladioli and a musical instrument made £356,000; and Two Young Congolese girls made £333,000.

Giles Peppiatt, Head of South African Art at Bonhams, the international fine art auction house which has almost single handedly built the South African Art Market in Europe, said of his latest sale: “We have had such a growth of interest that we have had to extend the sale to two days and two venues to allow us to exhibit the works as they deserve. We are seeing a maturing market for South African Art with a greater appreciation by non South African buyers. Increasingly the market is demanding the best but also paying greater and greater record prices. Artists like Maggie Laubscher, Irma Stern and Pierneef are receiving prices and critical recognition which would have delighted them had they lived to see it. The 450 lots in this sale were a fantastic cross section of some of the very best South African work ever seen anywhere in the world.”

For more information about the sale please go to Bonhams South African website at www.bonhams.com/southafrica

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