The painting Arab in Black by South Africa’s leading artist, Irma Stern, sold at Bonhams sale of South African Art in London on 9 September for £842,500 (R17.5m). It is the most expensive South African painting sold this year. Bonhams Head of South African Art, Hannah O’Leary said, “This powerful image from Stern’s highly regarded Zanzibar period, is one of the artist’s finest works. It also has a fascinating past - from an 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.
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 the 1970s, it 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.
Arab in Black now takes its place among the top ten South African paintings ever sold at auction. In 2011 Bonhams sold Stern’s painting ‘Arab Priest’ for over £3m, setting a new world record for South Africa’s leading artist.