“This is probably the most important historical item that has ever appeared on the market in many years,” remarks Dr. Alastair Meredith, who heads up auction house, Strauss & Co.’s art department.
Lot 224 at Strauss’ post-war and contemporary art auction was a glistening, mini, but quite heavy bronze statue of Paul Kruger – the former President of the South African Republic from 1883 to 1900, before he went into exile.
The auction set to showcase the early highveld school and its group of artists, one of which was Utrecht-born Anton van Wouw, the sculptor behind Kruger’s bronze maquette. Van Wouw is, until this day, still considered the father of Eurocentric and naturalist South African sculpture.
“Whether you like him [Kruger] or not or have an interest in his politics or not, this specific bronze is genuinely intertwined in the turn-of-the-century South African history and Paul Kruger’s personal history as well,” says Meredith.
The bronze is a small-scale model of the 14-foot high statue of Kruger wearing a top hat and presidential sash with a cane on a plinth, commissioned in 1896 by industrialist Sammy Marks. Today, the gigantic version can be found in Church Square, Pretoria.
Meredith explains that, following the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer war, some of the original bronzes from before or during this time – including Kruger’s – were impounded in Delagoa Bay in 1899, with some directed to England as war booty. “The large Paul Kruger was most likely dumped in Delagoa Bay while the replica is most likely the one we see in Church Square.”
It was Sir Ernest Oppenheimer who acquired a plaster of Paris model of the larger statue of Kruger, which returned to SA with the statesman’s body from exile in 1904 and was then sent to Rome for casting by the foundry of Giovanni Nisini (inscribed on the side of the plinth).
Because the original plaster was destroyed after casting, the statue is the only unique bronze casting of van Wouw’s work ever produced. Oppenheimer subsequently sold it to the Rand Club in Johannesburg for 125 Guineas and it remained at the club for most of its life until exchanging hands again.
Bidders resolutely chased after van Wouw’s only known bronze maquette of Kruger and when Meredith eventually knocked down the auction hammer on the work, the selling price of R10.47 million established a new world record for the sculptor. Strauss says the sale price more than doubled the previous world record for van Wouw, also held by the auction house.
Kruger’s maquette has been identified by the South African Heritage Resource Agency (SAHRA) as an item of significant historical importance, and as a result, will not be issued an export licence according to Strauss & Co.