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London - One of the world’s most recognisable modern paintings, the Chinese Girl, is heading back to South Africa after it was bought by jewellery billionaire Laurence Graff for the equivalent of R13.8 million on Wednesday.
Bonhams auction house in London said Graff, who is the chairman of Graff Diamonds International and owner of the Delaire Graff Estate near Stellenbosch, plans to return it to the Western Cape, where it will go on public display with the rest of his art collection.
The garish Chinese Girl or Green Lady portrait was painted by South African artist Vladimir Tretchikoff and sold to an American in the 1950s. It has stayed in the US ever since.
Sneered at by some critics, the painting became a feature of lounge walls in the 1960s and 70s, with the artist claiming to have sold over half a million large-format reproductions.
At Wednesday’s sale, bidding started at R2.8m and then increased in increments of R281000 before a hushed auction room of about 120 people. Grey-suited auctioneer Giles Peppiatt looked surprised as he accepted the final bid - almost R7m more than the expected price.
The artist, who was born in Russia but later moved to Shanghai before settling in South Africa, had played down the significance of the woman in the painting, claiming they had met in San Francisco.
However, research by author Boris Gorelik in 2010 revealed it was Monika Sing-Lee - later Pon-su-san - who was working at her uncle’s laundry in Sea Point, Cape Town, when Tretchikoff asked her to pose for him.
Tretchikoff asked her to sit two days a week for 10 weeks to paint the portrait, for which she was paid the modern-day equivalent of R1 900.