Cashing in on Kebble's treasure trove

Late mining magnate Brett Kebble was considered South Africa’s foremost patron of the arts—and now, with the sale of his private art collection on May 7, aficionados have a chance to find out just what kind of collector he was.

Although Kebble sponsored his own annual art award from 2003 to 2005—the most lucrative in its time—he was not considered particularly erudite on the subject of contemporary art. But the nature of his art collection, soon to be under the hammer, may contradict that.

In early 2003 Kebble engaged gallerist and investment art dealer Graham Brits as his primary art dealer after a series of fall-outs with his previous dealers. Brits took responsibility for valuing and cataloguing Kebble’s collection, as well as trading lesser works out of the collection to make way for more valuable acquisitions.

According to Brits Kebble’s personal taste steered the character of the collection. Although some were critical, Brits says: “Brett was a visionary. He had a love for art, a love for the good things in life. You find a lot of wealthy people in the world but not all of them are collectors of art. Brett was more refined. He had already positioned himself on a number of valuable Sterns and Laubsers when I started to work with him.” Brits estimates that Kebble’s effects will fetch up to R100-million.

The 142 works on the auction inventory are predominantly important South African paintings from the first half of the 20th century, all acquired after 2001 when Kebble was declared technically insolvent. The impressive collection boasts 13 works by Irma Stern, 10 Alexis Prellers, 12 Maggie Laubsers and valuable works by other prominent artists including JH Pierneef, Walter Battiss, Thomas Bowler and Vladimir Tretchikoff.

Three contemporary works, two of William Kentridge’s early charcoal drawings and a steel sculpture by Marco Cianfanelli, have also made it on to the roll. One solitary George Pemba painting, The Gathering of the Elders, stands out on the list as the meagre representation of black artists in Kebble’s collection. Indeed, his personal collection was widely criticised at the time of the inception of the Brett Kebble Art Award—supposedly a catalyst for racial transformation in the visual arts industry—as racially exclusive.

Despite its controversial provenance the Kebble auction, Brits says, will be one of the largest sales from an individual collection in South African art history. The gains from the sale of the 142 works will go towards paying off Kebble’s numerous creditors. The remainder of his personal collection—all works purchased before the year 2000—Kebble safeguarded before his death as gifts to his wife and children.

Brits expects more than 2 000 visitors at the pre-sale viewing at Grahams Fine Art Gallery from April 16 to 30 and is optimistic about the prices works are likely to fetch despite hard economic times. “We are dealing in an economic downturn and what spare cash people have will affect the success of the sale. Had the sale been done last year we could have raised well over R100-million. There’s a lot of uncertainty, but it should raise close to R100-million, even in this climate. There’s a lot of intrigue and curiosity about the sale—and there’s a lot of good work,” he says. “What makes this auction unusual is here we have major works coming up for sale with no strategic timing. Brett had a lot of creditors, so the sale has to happen now. It’s an opportunity for people to position themselves on top quality works at fair value.”

Ian Hunter, a specialist in painting at Sotheby’s, could not comment specifically on whether or not Brits’s R100-million estimate is plausible given the quality of the works in the collection and the present economic climate. But Hunter says: “The bill of fare reads beautifully as a who’s who of the South African masters ... [Kebble] obviously had the money and the eye for an investment needed to build a very strong collection.”

The auction of the Kebble Collection will take place on May 7 at Summer Place in Hyde Park, Johannesburg. The pre-auction viewing will take place at Graham’s Fine Art Gallery from April 16 to 30 and then from May 4 to 6 at Summer Place. Bookings for viewings and for the auction are now open. A limited-edition catalogue will be available by order. For further information or to book contact the gallery at 011 465 9192

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