Stern sultan goes on sale ... if you have R16m to spend

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Stern sultan goes on sale ... if you have R16m to spend

Previously unknown Irma Stern painting to go on auction in Cape Town this month

Cape Town bureau chief


When Irma Stern made her second trip to Madagascar, in 1945, she was allowed into the sultan’s palace, where she painted a portrait of an Omani nobleman.
Stern, then 50, placed the portrait in a frame she bought in Stone Town, and sold the painting to Cape Town art collector Sol Munitz.
Now, following Munitz’s death in 2018 at the age of 93, the portrait's existence has been revealed to Stern scholars for the first time. Better yet, the 63cm x 52.5cm oil is up for sale.
If you want to buy it, however, an Omani oil fortune will come in handy, because it is expected to go for between R12m and R16m at an auction in Cape Town this month.
Portrait of an Arab is one of 11 Sterns in the Strauss & Co sale, but not expected to be the most expensive.
That distinction goes to Meditation, Zanzibar, painted during the artist’s first trip to the island in 1939. The 99cm x 93cm portrait of a young woman swathed in lustrous colours, from the collection of Louis Shill, is expected to sell for between R15m and R20m.
Another of Munitz’s Sterns, The Mauve Sari – painted in 1946 – is estimated at R13m to R17m. “This work is perhaps the most remarkable for Stern’s fine balance between calm introspection and lively animation,” said art historian Professor Sandra Klopper.
Bina Genovese, joint MD of Strauss & Co, said Portrait of an Arab was one of only four known portraits by Stern of Arab noblemen.
“While the ageing, bearded sitter is unnamed, Stern’s painting clearly identifies him as an Omani nobleman through his garments, notably the combination of blue, lilac, purple and orange in his turban,” she said.
The three Stern portraits had not changed hands for more than half a century, and “the pre-sale estimates are based on the period, the important provenance and remarkable vitality of the individual pictures”.
The Shill collection comes from the estate of an accountant who founded Liberty Life with Donald Gordon in the late 1950s, and created SA’s first unit trust.
Shill, who died in 2016 at the age of 86, left Liberty, founded Sage in 1965 and built it into a financial powerhouse. Seven years later, he and his wife Mavis bought Meditation, Zanzibar from a Cape Town gallery.
“The intensity and pathos of the woman’s expression suggests a strong empathy between Stern and her subject,” said art historian Professor Federico Freschi.
The work was also notable for conveying the “languid mystique” of the Sultan’s harem, he said.
By 1998, Shill’s stake in Sage was estimated to be worth R500m. But his holding crashed in value after an ill-fated US venture which cost the company well over R1bn, and Shill resigned in 2002.
The businessman served as minister of housing and public works in SA’s last National Party government, in 1993 and 1994, under then-president FW de Klerk.
• Strauss & Co’s sale will be held at the Vineyard Hotel, in Claremont, on March 18. Viewing is between March 15 and 17.

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