Incredible journey of SA’s Mona Lisa

2013-11-17 14:00

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Piece bought for R250 sat in student’s lounge for 28 years.

On Monday night a new record was set for the most money paid for South ­African art at an auction in South ­Africa.

Media-shy Cape Town sculptor Jane Alexander’s Untitled 1985/6 fetched a stunning R5.5?million at a Strauss & Co sale.

Another Alexander sculpture at the auction – West Coast African Angel – was bought for R670?000.

Jane Alexander’s West Coast African Angel fetched R670 000 this week. Picture: Strauss & Co

Both were created for the same show, which was installed at the Market Theatre Gallery in 1986 as part of Alexander’s master’s work while she was studying at Wits University.

Untitled was one of only two works that sold at the time.

It was bought by a student for a few hundred rands and paid off with her pocket money.

It sat in a Joburg lounge for 28 years.

Butcher Boys, Alexander’s most ­famous work, also appeared at the same show.

It has an equally fascinating story.

It was the height of the second state of emergency and Untitled?–?an ominous life-sized man with no mouth and a leather strap around his neck?– was seated about 2m from the Butcher Boys, half-human, half-animal ­figures with broken horns, no mouths and no ears.

Together, they provided a startling portrayal of the dehumanising force of apartheid.

The Butcher Boys went on to become the face of contemporary South African art, shown in the world’s leading galleries and on the covers of top art magazines.

Today the work is owned by the South African National Gallery in Cape Town.

Strauss & C0’s senior art specialist, Ruarc Peffers, says Butcher Boys is “the Mona Lisa of South Africa.

People come from all over the world to see it. The demand is so great, the gallery basically had to put it on permanent display.”

It is this relationship to the Butcher Boys that saw Untitled’s value rocketwhen it was sold to a private local ­collector.

Incredibly, Untitled first went for a song. Although the seller’s name is known to City Press, she is not available for comment.

Says Peffers: “We think it was bought for about R250. We know it was considerably less than R1?000 ... The buyer paid it off over a year from her pocket money.”

Untitled was moved into “a small house in Joburg where it sat in the lounge for 28 years, a part of the ­family”.

Jane Alexander’s record-breaking Untitled was sold for R5.5 million on auction in Joburg. Picture: South African National Gallery

When West Coast African Angel?–?a bicycle-riding figure with a flamingo head – became available for auction, Strauss approached Untitled’s owner.

They persuaded her that if she was to sell, it should be along with another major Alexander to drum up hype.

But Butcher Boys didn’t sell at that first exhibition.

Says Peffers: “They were taken to the artist’s parents’ house, where they were placed near the piano and there they sat passing the time. I believe it got to the stage where they were getting in the way and Jane even considered scrapping them?… When her parents moved to Cape Town, they took them along.”

It was in Cape Town that the world-famous sculptures finally sold to the national gallery for an unknown sum.

Peffers relates a story that has been confirmed by others: “When the ­gallery went to fetch them with a flatbed truck, they sent three workers to help.

Each sat on the back of the truck with a Butcher Boy next to them, an arm around the sculptures’ waists to keep them upright?…?It must have made quite a picture, these guys holding ominous, demonic figures. Then they were spotted by a policeman on a motorbike.

“I’m told he craned his head, saw the sight and stopped the truck.” When the policeman heard what was happening – art being delivered to the national gallery?–?he decided to ­escort the truck there.

Butcher Boys, Alexander’s most famous work. Picture: South African National Gallery

Peffers says he will value the ­Butcher Boys at between R15?million and R20?million today.

Alexander seldom?–?if ever?–?speaks to the media.

But last year, she spoke through her lawyer when shock rappers Die ­Antwoord referenced the Butcher Boys in a teaser for their album Ten$ion, without the artist’s ­permission.

The video was hastily removed from the internet.

The Alexander sale has?beaten William Kentridge’s local record.

Two of his works have topped the R2?million mark ­previously.

Kentridge is still the highest-selling local artist on international auction, though, fetching R16 million earlier this year in London.

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