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'African Gauguin' masterpiece up for auction for first time in almost 40 years

'African Gauguin' masterpiece up for auction for first time in almost 40 years
Agencies   -  
Copyright © africanews
AP Photo

United Kingdom

Alexis Preller’s self-portrait is the first painting visitors see as they enter this exhibition. The South African artist’s masterpiece is one of almost 100 artworks on show at Sotheby’s auction house in London.

It will be part of a sale of modern and contemporary African art taking place later this month.

But before the works go under the hammer, there is time for people to see them up close at this special exhibition.

For the majority of the paintings and sculptures, this is the first time they have been on public display.

Sixty-six artists from 23 countries are represented.

And Hannah O’Leary, Head of Modern and Contemporary African Art at Sotheby’s, says the show demonstrates the wide breadth of African art.

"So we call the sale 'Modern and Contemporary African Art', but it's a tricky title. You know, Africa is a huge continent, 54 different countries, a fast growing population. It's hard to say that the artists in Morocco are looking at what the artists in South Africa are doing, for example, and we're not claiming that's what we're offering here. What we're offering is the variety of art and the diversity of art and artists on the continent, and a platform for artists who historically were maybe left out of the global art history narrative."

Highlights of the sale include Moroccan artist Mohamed Meleh’s Mirage, with an estimate of up to £100,000.

One of Nigerian artist’s Ben Enwonwu most coveted pieces, ‘Africa Dances’, is expected to fetch up to £70,000.

And Irma Stern’s 1937 painting ‘Still Life with Watermelon and Dahlias’ has a price tag of £150,000.

But the star lot is Preller’s ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Visionary’ which Sotheby’s think could go for £300,000.

He is often referred to as the 'African Gaugain'.

Preller is believed to have painted this for an exhibition at the University of Art in Pretoria in 1972.

But he hung on to it afterwards, and seems to have paid special attention to it, right up to his final days.

"It was still in his studio on his death, and he added elements like the apple and the bird that you see here. Some of the the character's headdress is added in later. Which means that he returned to it several times. It was really very meaningful for him, and he describes it as a self-portrait as well. This work has been in a private collection since the 1980s, so we're really excited that it's re-emerged and we're able to rediscover it and show it to the world," explains O’Leary.

Sotheby’s has held special auctions of modern and contemporary African art since 2017.

It’s seen demand for the genre steadily increase, with even online sales during the pandemic years of 2020-2022 showing record growth.

"Our buyers are truly global. In this category, we've seen bidding from 60 different countries on six different continents. But the most powerful buyers and the ones that we really focus on are the African buyers themselves. They're the ones who recognise these artists, and their importance, and they're the ones who value them the highest. And they're certainly the buyers that we want to address first and foremost," says O’Leary.

The sale will take place on 21 March.

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