A painting by a Jewish South African artist that once helped fund Nelson Mandela’s legal defense, and for years was being used as a kitchen bulletin board in London, is expected to garner $1.5 million in an auction in September after it was recognized by an art expert.
“Arab in Black,” a 1939 work by Irma Stern, a major South African artist whose works have recently been soaring in value, was spotted by Hannah O’Leary during an evaluation visit to a London apartment, The Guardian reported Tuesday.
According to O’Leary, a specialist in South African art at Bonhams auction house, the masterpiece was hanging in the kitchen, “covered in letters, postcards and bills.”
The painting’s hefty frame, made of antique door cases carved out of wood from Zanzibar, is in itself immensely valuable, as such pieces of wood are now barred from export.
The painting was given by a collector to a charity auction in the late 1950s to raise funds for Mandela and other African National Congress activists, who were standing trial for high treason and faced the death penalty.
“This painting was a significant part of Mandela’s defense fund – there were other works of art given to the auction, but they were very minor. This was by far the most important piece,” Giles Peppiatt, director of Bonhams’ South African art department, told the Guardian.
Stern was born in the Transvaal in 1894 to German-Jewish parents, and returned to Germany in the wake of World War I. She extensively explored southern Africa, Zanzibar and the Congo region during her career, and almost 100 solo exhibitions were held during her lifetime.
After dying in 1966, her home in Cape Town was converted into a museum, and includes a commercial gallery used by contemporary South African artists.