This $1 Million Painting Once Helped Save Nelson Mandela’s Life

The long-lost painting was reportedly used by the owner as a notice board.

Irma Stern, Arab in Black (1939).
Photo: courtesy of Bonhams.

Once auctioned to help defray Nelson Mandela’s legal costs, a lost painting by South Africa’s leading artist Irma Stern, sold yesterday at Bonhams London for £842,500 ($1.3 million).

Arab in Black (1939) took a circuitous journey to the auction house’s South African art sale. In 1955, Nelson Mandela was arrested and charged with treason, and could have faced the death penalty if convicted. In the early 1960s, Stern donated Arab in Black to the Treason Trial Defense Fund, set up to cover the legal costs of Mandela and his co-defendants, and to support their families. Mandela was found not guilty in 1961.

Arab in Black was purchased by Betty Suzman, an art collector who emigrated from the South Africa to the UK in the 1970s. The painting passed to her son, who hung it in his kitchen. Hannah O’Leary, a Bonhams expert who specializes in South African art, recognized Stern’s 1939 painting during an appraisal visit. “I spotted this masterpiece hanging in the kitchen covered in letters, postcards and bills,” she told the Mail & Guardian.


Irma Stern, Arab Priest (1945).
Photo: Courtesy of Art Market Monitor.

In recent memory, a lost sketch of Frederic Leighton‘s Flaming June turned up behind a bedroom door, an Alfred Munnings watercolor was found in an old shed, a pair of John Duncan Fergusson works were discovered in a French attic, and a Sigmar Polke painting may have been sold for just $90 at a Texas thrift store.

“This powerful image from Stern’s highly regarded Zanzibar period, is one of the artist’s finest works,” O’Leary said in a press release. “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.”

The most expensive South African painting sold this year and among the top ten South African painting sales at auction of all time, Arab in Black carried a pre-sale estimate of £700,000–1 million ($1.1–1.6 million). Stern’s Arab Priest currently holds the record for both the nation and the artist, fetching over £3 million ($4.7 million) at Bonhams in 2011.

Related Stories:

Irma Stern Painting Worth Over $1 Million Found Amid Postcards in a London Kitchen

Nelson Mandela Memorialized by Bizarre, Giant Sunglasses

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