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Stern’s art fetches stellar prices

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Irma Stern paintings have become synonymous with multi-million rand prices - and even reach seven figures in foreign currency on overseas auctions.

On September 22, Stern’s 1934 gouache work, Still Life Flowers, is expected to fetch up to R1.6million at the Stellenbosch Fine Art and Antique Auctioneers’ sale at Melkbosstrand.

Who was this now iconic South African artist, with strong Cape connections, who has won world fame and posthumously become a local legend for record-priced paintings, some exceeding R20m?

Stern was born to German-Jewish parents in 1894 in Schweitzer-Renecke, in the then Transvaal. Her father was interned in a concentration camp by the British during the South African War because of his pro-Boer leanings, and Irma and her younger brother, Rudi, were taken to Cape Town by their mother. After the war, the family returned to Germany and lived a life of constant travel. This travel would influence Stern’s work, and she visited many African countries to paint in later life.

In 1913, Stern studied art in Germany at the Weimar Academy, in 1914 at the Levin-Funcke Studio, and from 1917 with Max Pechstein, a founder of the Novembergruppe which led to Stern becoming strongly associated with the German Expressionist painters of this period.

She held her first exhibition in Berlin in 1919. A year later, Stern returned to Cape Town with her family, where she was first derided and dismissed as an artist. Her early exhibitions drew reviews with titles like “The art of Miss Irma Stern: ugliness as a cult”. But by the 1940s, she had become an established – and much-admired – artist with a distinctive and individualistic Modernist style.

Capetonians can visit the UCT Irma Stern Museum at 21 Cecil Road, Rosebank – Stern’s home for more than four decades – to learn more about the acclaimed artist who, compared to her peers, was relatively well-paid, particularly in late life before her death in Cape Town in 1966. But Stern could never have dreamt her art would become major investment assets worth multi-millions just a few decades later.

The Stellenbosch Fine Art and Antique Auctioneers’ sale of art, antiques and Persian carpets starts at 10am on September 22 at the Atlantic Beach Country Club, Melkbosstrand. Other acclaimed local Old Master’s works on offer will include Pierneef, Hugo Naudé, Walter Battiss, Alexander Rose-Innes, Gregoire Boonzaier, David Botha, WH Coetzer and Maggie Laubser.

For more details, call 0822131632 or email


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