Hannah O’Leary, a specialist in South African art at Bonhams auction house, recognised Arab in Black, a 1939 work by Irma Stern – regarded as one of South Africa’s leading artists, whose works have recently been soaring in value – during a valuation visit to the London flat.
“I spotted this masterpiece hanging in the kitchen covered in letters, postcards and bills. It was a hugely exciting find, even before I learned of its political significance,” she said.
Stern died in 1966 and her former home in Cape Town is now a museum. Prices for her work have been rising. Another of her paintings of subjects from Zanzibar, similarly framed in heavy, antique, carved timber, set a new world record at Bonhams in 2011 when it sold for £3.1-million.
In the late 1950s, the painting was given by the collector Betty Suzman – sister-in-law of anti-apartheid activist and politician Helen Suzman – to a charity auction to raise funds for Nelson Mandela and other ANC activists, including Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, who were on trial for high treason and faced the death penalty.
In 1961, the case was dismissed after the trial had dragged on for five years, but three years later Mandela, Sisulu and others were rearrested and given life sentences for treason. Mandela was eventually freed in 1990 and went on to become president.
Giles Peppiatt, director of Bonhams’ South African art department, said: “This painting was a significant part of Mandela’s defence fund. There were other works of art given to the auction, but they were very minor. This was by far the most important piece.”
The heavy, ornate frame that protected the painting and kept it in pristine condition during its noticeboard years is itself a rare and valuable thing, made from the timbers of elaborately carved antique door cases from Zanzibar, which are now barred from export.
Stern, who was born in 1894 in the then Transvaal into a German Jewish family, spent several periods working in Zanzibar in the 1930s and 1940s, and used the frames for what she considered her best works.
The parents of the present owner emigrated to the UK in the 1970s, bringing their auction prize painting with them.
“The words ‘shocked’ and ‘astonished’ would both apply to the present owners,” Peppiatt said. “They loved the painting and they knew it had some value, but they had no idea it was such an important work. In some ways they are very sorry to see it go, but it would be a great luxury to keep a million-pound painting hanging on a kitchen wall.”
The painting will be sold at the Bonhams auction of South African art in London on September 9. – © Guardian News & Media 2015