A Vladimir Tretchikoff painting – previously owned, at different times, by two apartheid-era ministers – is to be auctioned for at least R1 million in London next month.
Auctioneers of fine art and antiques, Bonhams, said the painting, presently owned by a private trust, is expected to sell for anything between £80 000 and £120 000 (between R1.1m and R1.6m).
Painted in 1949, The Herb Seller depicts a coloured woman, a herb seller, who had become a well-known figure in Cape Town.
Behind her are two torn and fading posters of the political rivals of the time – Jan Smuts of the United Party and DF Malan of the National Party.
“The woman, the main figure, gazes ahead as if to say these guys (Malan and Smuts) would pass and ‘I will remain’,” said Andrew Lamprecht, an independent curator and senior lecturer at the Michaelis school of fine art at the University of Cape Town.
Lamprecht said it could be argued that the artwork had anti-apartheid nuances.
It was therefore surprising that The Herb Seller was owned by apartheid ministers, Jan Haak, the minister of economic affairs in the late 1960s, and Pik Botha, foreign affairs minister from 1977 to 1994.
However, it did not raise the ire of the apartheid regime, unlike another Tretchikoff painting, Black and White.
This was a portrait of a half white, half black woman – with exactly the same features.
Lamprecht said that Tretchikoff’s background as a man who had travelled to many countries before settling in South Africa would have informed his paintings.
A Russian immigrant, he came to South Africa after World War II and had been in a relationship with a coloured woman, Lamprecht said.
According to the Tretchikoff Foundation, the custodian of Tretchikoff’s artistic property, the herb seller died soon after the completion of the portrait.
“It was as if a landmark had been taken from Cape Town,” it said on its website.
Lamprecht said that there seemed to be heightened interest recently in Tretchikoff’s works.
He explained that while the artist’s paintings appealed to ordinary people he was never liked by the art establishment.
This was apparently because of his choice of very bright colours, and portraits of models.
In a statement, the auctioneers said Tretchikoff’s value had risen exponentially in the art market in recent years.
This was as a result of the re-evaluation of his legacy in exhibitions and his artworks being sold at Bonhams.
Said Giles Peppiatt, director of South African Art at Bonhams: “This picture offers a fascinating glimpse into the street life of apartheid South Africa.
“It is unusual too in being owned by two South African government ministers. Both initially helped to implement and sustain the policy of apartheid... and yet they had this image hanging in their homes.
“It is both ironic and fascinating,” he added.
“Botha, however, would go on to serve in the first post-apartheid government as Minister of Mineral and Energy Affairs, eventually joining the ANC in 2000.
“In many ways, the picture’s provenance offers as much a portrait of South Africa’s complex history as its subject does a portrait of a memorable individual.”
One of Tretchikoff’s most popular work, the Chinese Girl, is also going under the hammer at the same auction. With more than half a million reproductions of the painting sold, the Chinese Girl is arguably one of the highest selling prints in history.
Lamprecht said that the print had become part of popular culture and was easy to access for ordinary people.
“People could walk into an OK Bazaar and buy the print,” he said.
The Chinese Girl is expected to fetch between £300 000 and £500 000.
It was bought in the 1950s directly from Tretchikoff by an American woman, Mignon Buhler, in Chicago when the artist was touring the US.
It is being sold on March 20 by Buhler’s granddaughter.