The Witch Doctor brings good luck for one fortunate seller

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The Witch Doctor brings good luck for one fortunate seller

Tretchkikoff's artwork may sell for as much as R3-million at auction

Mary Corrigall

When P-Diddy parted with $21-million for an artwork, Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times, at a recent Sotheby’s auction, it was going to make headlines. Knowing the identity of the buyer turned the purchase into a political statement, given it was the highest sum paid for a work by a living (a Jean Michel Basquiat recently fetched $110-million) African American. The stories attached to the motivations of the sellers and buyers of artworks at auctions are often the most interesting and the least known – given few reveal their identities.Herein lie the untold stories around art. Certainly, you would assume that the story surrounding how and why Vladimir Tretchikoff came to make a painting of the Witch Doctor would be more interesting than the its procurement.  Boris Gorelik, the author of the artist’s biography, argues in the catalogue that the artwork is unique. For while it is a completely inauthentic representation (a surprising signature of the artist) of a witch doctor – the artist paid models to dress up in costumes of his own design – it was the only painting that referred to occult beliefs.There are a number of quirky anecdotes about Tretchikoff that relate to his superstitious nature, such as his observation that a pigeon apparently arrived on his balcony on the evening of his first exhibition and only flew away when he became a success. The pigeon’s descendents must be flapping their wings wildly given the Witch Doctor might fetch up to R3-million in the June 4 auction.
This will be warmly received by the seller, who inherited the work from her mother. Her identity is not known to this writer, but the auction house was taken with her late mother’s story. Her daughter recalls she was a big fan of the artist – almost a stalker it is suggested.  She would dress up to the nines to meet him whenever he made an appearance at a department store in Durban where he sold posters and artworks. She could only afford the posters, and collected them avidly.  Naturally, it was her dream to own an original. She saved for years to finally purchase The Witch Doctor in 1976, says Alastair Meredith, art specialist at Strauss & Co. 
It was fortuitous that she did in that year, for it would be his last travelling exhibition. She joined a long line outside the Greenacres shopping centre in Durban to see the work she would eventually purchase.
“A record 50,000 people visited the exhibition over a five-week period,” says Meredith.
By all accounts she stretched herself financially to buy The Witch Doctor, though it cost R2,000 in the 1970s. It turned out to be a good investment.  She must have had some inkling for when she passed it on to her daughter when she died she told her to sell it if she found herself in a tight spot.The R3-million or more the painting could fetch should be just the ticket to help her out of trouble and some. It is the sort of boon “Tretchi”, as he is affectionately dubbed, would have enjoyed, given his superstitious leanings – “it was at a Séance in Jakarta during World War 2 that his international success (as an artist) was foretold”, according to Gorelik.
It wasn’t only his international reputation that made his art valuable, but rather his accessibility, echoed in the title of Andrew Lamprecht’s monograph The People’s Painter. The untold story of the anonymous woman who once owned the Witch Doctor painting serves to affirm the epithet. Tretchi would be delighted too, that the artwork is, due to its monetary value, in the same league as some star works by Alexis Preller on the auction such as Poisedon (1970) or Contrapuntal Figures II (1964).• Sponsored text. Corrigall is art commentator and advisor. Visit www.corrigall.org The public are invited to view the works for the upcoming Strauss & Co June 4 Auction at Wanderers Club, Joburg,  from June 1. Visit www.straussart.co.za for more information about the works and auction.

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