Irma Stern

Pic: Strauss & Co.

Yet another piece of art made the headlines in South Africa this week but not for the same reasons as Brett Murray’s “The Spear”.  An unidentified South African has just paid R17.2 million at auction for “The Arab”, a painting by one of South Africa’s most famous artists, Irma Stern.

Why would an artwork fetch such an amount?

According to the Room Gallery owner Maria Fidel Regueros, apart from buying art as an investment, other factors that contribute to the art price tag include the rarity, the market value and the historical contexts.

Stern’s painting was definitely a masterpiece and the high value placed on the artwork perhaps its value was inflated as it had not been seen until recently. Another reason could be that subject matter.

The oil on canvas painting was of an Omani Arab, which Stern painted on her first visited Zanzibar in 1939 while it was still under Omani Sultan – Seyyid Khalifa Bin Haroub.

Regueros says that when the price of artwork is “blown out of proportion” it raises the bar for the price of other artworks. “I feel that the markets today dictate the price of the work rather than the value of the art.  According to the Strauss & Co, Stern’s painting was expected to fetch between R7 million and R9 million.

Stern was born to German Jewish parents and she shuttled between Africa and Europe. At some point her work was considered controversial by critics due to the choice of subject matter and the fact that the South African art scene had not developed.