Irma Stern export ban challenged

This week the eyes of the art world will be on the headquarters of the South African Heritage Resources Agency (Sahra) when a decision is made about whether an important work by the late Irma Stern can leave the country in the hands of a foreign owner.

The “owner” will be a representative of the Qatar Museums Authority and the artwork in question is Stern’s painting Arab Priest (1945).

In March the work was auctioned at Bonhams Fine Art Auctioneers in London and fetched a record £3044 000, about £600 000 more than the previous record sale of a Stern, also sold at Bonhams in October 2010.

The trouble began when Arab Priest‘s new owner attempted to move the work to the prestigious Qatar Orientalist Museum. There, the painting, a portrait of a bearded imam, was to hang alongside images of the East in what is considered one of the world’s most significant collections of Orientalist art.

According to Sahra’s heritage objects manager, Regina Isaacs, the work was loaned to Bonhams and the auction house “did not apply for a permanent export permit.
Instead it applied for a temporary export permit, which we granted.”

Isaacs told the Mail & Guardian this week that she suspected the auction house knew her agency would not approve of the permanent export of the work, which had, for decades, occupied pride of place in the Irma Stern Museum in Rondebosch, Cape Town.

On November 16 the Qatar Museums Authority will appeal Sahra’s refusal to export the work. Sahra believes it to be an important part of the country’s “national estate”.

Its anonymous owner placed Arab Priest in the Irma Stern Museum on permanent loan. But, as the years rolled by, the museum could not afford its upkeep. Erin Torkelson of the Organised Crime and Money Laundering Programme of the Institute for Security Studies wrote in July that “due to the vast price escalation and increasing popularity of the artist, the Stern Museum could no longer afford to insure the painting and the owner chose to sell it”.

The subject matter
According to Isaacs, the value to South Africa resided in the work’s subject matter: “The artwork is over 50 years old and was produced by a prolific artist. The subject matter is about a spiritual person—an Arab priest. It is considered to be significant for South Africa because it is a valuable artistic document by a much-travelled South African artist, whose activities and artistic journey transcended and crossed boundaries of religion and culture. It serves as a valuable document for South Africans of mutual respect between diverse cultures and religions.”

Plainly put, it is a painting of a righteous Muslim by a European, Jewish painter born in Africa. Stern painted the work after her return from a well-documented sojourn in Zanzibar. The work is framed in the carved Zanzibari woodwork Stern found on her travels.

For these reasons the work is considered important by both the local heritage sector and scholars of Orientalist art abroad.

Isaacs said that the South African authorities were not clamping down on the removal of historical artworks from South African galleries.

She said that, of 30 recent applications to export South African art, 24 had been granted and six refused.

Art that is not accompanied by an export permit may be sold to South African buyers only. “Our Constitution and legislation makes provision for private owners to own [art] and so you may sell your artwork in South Africa to whoever you want,” Isaacs said.

The precedent being set this week in Cape Town is about the refusal of a permit to a foreign buyer and an appeal from that buyer to have the work removed from South Africa.

If the Qataris’ appeal fails, they can then appeal to the minister of arts and culture, who will set up a tribunal to review the case.

So the Arab Priest will have to hang in limbo for a little longer before knowing which country he will permanently call home.

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse

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