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Preller Masterpiece Resurfaces after 39 years, in ‘Gentleman’s Collection’ on Auction

 Preller Masterpiece Resurfaces after 39 years, in ‘Gentleman’s Collection’ on Auction

After remaining underground for close to 40 years, a masterpiece by Alexis Preller, along with works by Gerard Sekoto and contemporary artists like Zanele Muholi and Sanell Aggenbach, will be on auction: just some of the fruits of one gentleman’s lifelong pursuit of art collecting will be featured as a flagship component of the upcoming Stephan Welz & Co. Decorative and Fine Arts Sale on 1 and 2 October in Cape Town.

Once in 50 YearsThe Collection of a Gentleman is a large and esteemed collection of 168 works including paintings, sculpture, watercolours, drawings and prints by South African masters and leading contemporary artists.

The October auction could potentially be the largest in the auction house’s 45-year-history, with the highest total estimated value to date. In addition to the ‘Once in 50 Years’ Collection, there will be 606 other lots for sale, including Tribal Art, a special collection acquired by the late Nicolas Penny, previously on loan to Iziko South African Museums, as well as important works by William Kentridge, Freida Lock and Maud Sumner.

Once in 50 Years

“It’s rare that a collection comes along that is as large and spectacular as ‘Once in 50 Years’, which has been lovingly compiled by its anonymous seller over the past 50 years,” said Gary Shean, Painting’s Specialist at Stephan Welz & Co. Cape Town.  “It is a visual testament to one man’s exceptional ability to recognise value in art long before others, as well as a true benchmark for South African art collectors. If you could take a panorama of the past century of South African art, made up of many diverse components and styles, this might just be it.”

A prized oil on board by Gerard Sekoto (1913-1993), who is considered the ‘father of black South African art’, is one of the works to be auctioned. Washing Day, Eastwood, valued at R2 000 000 – R3 000 000, is an important work from the artist’s oeuvre, and depicts an everyday scene of township life.

Sekoto’s Eastwood period was a time when he lived and worked in the Pretoria township, from 1945 to 1947. It is often referred to as his most productive period, “showing snapshots of daily living which are both unpretentious and accessible,” according to Barbara Lindop, Sekoto expert and author. The Eastwood period immediately preceded his move to Paris, a self-imposed exile which while gaining him international exposure, was also emotionally straining for the artist.

Behind the superficial ordinariness of the scene in this work is an overwhelming bleakness, Lindop adds. “Through Sekoto’s vision and artistic production, the traditional suburban world is offered a window into how the other half of our society lived, and sadly continues to live.” The seller, who wishes to remain anonymous, says of the work: “It is a painting I have absolutely adored since I first saw it.”

While today Sekoto is feted as one of the country’s most important artists, he was once advised to take a job as a janitor at the Johannesburg Art Gallery so that he could see his work Yellow House on display. It was the first work by a black artist to be acquired by the gallery. Sekoto would have turned 100 this year, and was recently celebrated with a retrospective exhibition held in Johannesburg at the Wits Art Museum. The value of Sekoto’s work is rising, along with the appreciation of his significant role in South African art.

Prized Prellers

Two key works from modernist painter Alexis Preller (1911-1975) will also be auctioned. Preller, who was a prisoner of war for two years while serving in the SA Medical Corps during the Second World War, was the creator of complex works intertwining symbols and references from mythological worlds with past experiences and influences of Surrealist and African themes.

Painted in 1957, Mapogga Axis Mundi has been owned by the seller for 39 years, who at the age of nine saw his first Preller mural in the Receiver of Revenue Building in Johannesburg. He admits that he’s remained fixated with the artist ever since.

According to Preller expert Professor Karel Nel, he and collaborator Esmé Berman first learned of this painting’s existence through the discovery of a small black and white photograph of the work, found in the Preller archives. “It has been both a surprise and a delight that this work has now re-emerged from obscurity,” said Nel.

“The painting is a distilled work, one of the composite images that Preller produced at intervals,” says Nel. A number of themes are at work in the painting, which features an enormous inverted conus shell partially cut away to reveal the ‘axis mundi’, or turning point of the universe, as well as Ndebele imagery.  The work has an estimated value of R3 500 000 – R5 000 000.

In another of Preller’s haunting works, Candles and Symbols on a Beach, which was painted seven years earlier, candles and eggs are the primary symbols, grouped along the shoreline of a small cove. According to Nel: “There is something votive about this work. It is shrine-like with its candles, acknowledging the uneasiness of Preller’s own life, set against his return from the trauma of the Second World War and with it, the concomitant sense of collective loss.” The work has an estimated value of R1 200 000 – R1 800 000.

SA’s Fine Art

Walter Battiss is another of the top South African artists to be represented in this collection. His large, vibrantly coloured oil on canvas, In The Winelands, was commissioned in the 1970s by KWV Wines, and is a recreation of the Winelands landscape. The painting has been estimated at R800 000 – R1 200 000.

Other key works to be sold include a powerful Shaka panel (R450 000 – R700 000) by Cecil Skotnes and Two Bushmen, an oil on board by François Krige (R180 000 – R220 000).

The collection also boasts a number of sculptures, including Anton van Wouw’s bronze, Miner with Hand Drill, valued at R800 000 – R1 200 000, and Edoardo Villa’s painted steel Abstract Figure 1, estimated at R140 000 – R180 000.

Young Bloods to Watch

“There are many young and sometimes controversial artists represented in this collection, alongside well-known living artists like Beezy Bailey, Hardy Botha and Clare Menck,” said Shean. Johannesburg-based photographer Zanele Muholi, whose print Nomsa Mazibuko And Fondo…is valued at R20 000 – R25 000, calls herself a “visual activist” and is best known for documenting the lives of black lesbians.

In 2009, Muholi was publicly criticized by Minister of Arts and Culture Lulu Xingwana, who walked out of her exhibition stating that: “It was immoral, offensive and going against nation-building.”

Also featured are two large Sanell Aggenbach paintings, which are inversed images referencing the original large format negatives of sitters taken in multi-cultural 20th century Woodstock by van Kalker, a community photographer of that time. Playboys and Three Men are each estimated at R30 000 – R40 000.

Prolific comic artist Conrad Botes colourfully explores Afrikaans and South African culture, and was the cofounder of the Bitterkomix series with Anton Kannemeyer. His series of three ink on poster paint on papers entitled The Passion Of The Witrot, is valued at R60 000 – R80 000.

A rare selection of John Muafengejo linocuts will also be on offer, all of which are from small editions of only two prints. Such works are unique in that they reflect the naivety of the artist’s early print-making days.

Internationally Speaking

Amongst the impressive array of South African artworks are a number of prints from well-known international artists such as Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and John Piper.

Anyone can bid for pieces online via, Europe’s leading portal for live art and antiques auctions, which is now operating in South Africa.  Users of the website can search catalogues and place their bids over the internet in real-time, with live audio and video feeds recreating the auction room atmosphere – all from the comfort of their laptop or computer.

The Stephan Welz & Co. Decorative and Fine Arts Auction will take place on Tuesday 1 and Wednesday 2 October at The Great Cellar, Alphen Estate, Alphen Drive, Constantia, Cape Town, South Africa.

Viewing dates and lectures

Johannesburg: 13 Biermann Avenue Rosebank

Pre-auction viewing of a selection of pieces from Once in 50 YearsThe Collection of a Gentleman will be open to the public at no charge daily from Monday 16 to Friday 20 September.

Barbara Lindop and Professor Karel Nel will give a free lecture on the Sekoto and Preller works featured in Once in 50 YearsThe Collection of a Gentleman on Wednesday 18 September, 18h30 for 19h30.

Cape Town: The Great Cellar, Alphen Estate, Alphen Drive, Constantia

Pre-auction viewing for the entire auction – including Once in 50 YearsThe Collection of a Gentleman  is open to the public at no charge, daily from Wednesday 25 to Sunday 29 September.

For more information contact 021 794-6461 or e-mail The auction catalogue can be viewed at

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