Irma Stern's painting, Dahlias, will go on auction in two weeks, and could fetch as much as R12m. Picture: SUPPLIED
Irma Stern's painting, Dahlias, will go on auction in two weeks, and could fetch as much as R12m. Picture: SUPPLIED

Five weeks before SA’s first democratic elections‚ Count Natale Labia went to an auction in Cape Town and came home with an Irma Stern under his arm.

The painting “Dahlias” cost the Italian-South African nobleman R187‚000. When it goes under the hammer later this month‚ it is expected to fetch between R8m and R12m.

“Dahlias” (1947) is one of 22 paintings from Labia’s collection, which will go under the hammer on October 15 following the count’s death in 2016.

Bina Genovese‚ joint MD of auctioneer Strauss & Co‚ said Stern produced five still lifes featuring dahlias in the 1930s and 1940s‚ and this was the last.

In the book “Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye” in 1995‚ Marion Arnold described the 96cm x 84cm oil painting as an “exuberant composition” that burst “beyond the confines of the frame”.

After buying “Dahlias”‚ Labia hung it at his home in Wynberg‚ Hawthornden House — and Genovese said the fact that it had been owned by someone with such “judicious” taste added to its provenance.

“Artworks owned by esteemed and visionary collectors are always sought after by newer generations of collectors‚” she said. “Discerning collectors recognise that collecting not only involves connoisseurship but also custodianship‚ and by owning a work previously held by an important collector they are participating in a lineage of discernment.”

The Strauss & Co sale‚ in Claremont‚ features two drawings by Stern and two more of her paintings: “Castle‚ Madeira” (1963‚ valued at between R2m and R3m) and “Woman with Orange Headscarf” (1949‚ valued at between R250‚000 and R350‚000). Proceeds from these works will go to the Irma Stern Trust.

Art writer Jeremy Lawrence said Labia inherited a love of art from his father‚ also Natale‚ who was Italian ambassador to SA in the 1920s‚ and his mother Ida‚ daughter of the Randlord Sir Joseph “JB” Robinson.

At least one of the paintings in this month’s auction is from Sir Joseph’s art collection‚ which was displayed at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town in 1959.

Lawrence said one of Labia’s other passions was cars‚ and “in his late 80s, he acquired a new navy blue Maserati — although … in the face of old age he took it on the road only a handful of times”.

The Labia name lives on in a cinema in Gardens — once the ballroom of the Italian embassy next door‚ now Seafare House; and in Casa Labia‚ a cultural centre in Muizenberg that was once the family home.

Even if “Dahlias” goes for R12m‚ at the upper end of Strauss & Co’s estimate‚ it will be a bargain compared with her “Arab Priest”‚ which was sold in London in 2015 for the then-equivalent of R52.3m. Eleven of SA’s most expensive paintings are Sterns.