Paul Kruger statue sells for R10.46-million
Paul Kruger found himself in the middle of a war on Monday night – a bidding war. By the time the gavel fell, the sculpture of the one-time Transvaal president sold for a whopping R10.46m — four times more than expected.
The price for the bronze by renowned South African sculptor Anton van Wouw smashed world records for works by the artist and the price for any South African sculpture. The work is the maquette of the famous statue of Paul Kruger that stands at the centre of Church Square in Pretoria today. The sculpture features the Boer president in top hat, presidential sash and hallmark beard.
And while the bronze in Church Square, sculpted in 1896, has remained steadfast on public display for decades, it’s the maquette that has had a quirkier back story.
To begin with, art specialist Dr Alaistair Meredith of auction house Strauss & Co, which facilitated the sale, says the piece is unique and has glowing provenance. He also says it was highly prized by Van Wouw collectors, all of which added to the buzz around the sculpture before it went under the hammer at the Wanderers Club.
“The piece will remain in South Africa. It was denied a permit to be exported because it’s considered to be such an important historical and heritage art piece,” says Meredith.
Meredith says the plaster of paris cast was acquired by Sir Ernest Oppenheimer in the years after the Second Anglo-Boer War. Oppenheimer had a bronze cast in the Nisini foundry in Rome, to meet Van Wouw’s exacting standards. It became part of Oppenheimer’s private collection and was only brought out again for public display at Kruger’s funeral in 1904. Kruger’s body was repatriated from Switzerland where he had been in self-imposed exile.
In 1953, the one-metre-tall sculpture was sold by Oppenheimer to the Rand Club in Johannesburg for 125 Guineas, according to club records. It was probably a purchase that matched the changed political whims of the Nationalists in the Union Buildings.
The club chose to place its acquired Kruger at the entrance of its bar, facing off with Cecil John Rhodes at the opposite end. Rhodes was one of the founders of the Rand Club in 1887. He was also linked to the botched Jameson Raid led by Leander Starr Jameson over the New Year weekend of 1895-1896, which was meant to stir rebellion against Kruger.
“I have been a member of the Rand Club since 1975 and often thought about these two quite contrary figures and how they were placed at the entrance to the bar together. I think it was fitting, though, because they were figures who both represent a time in our history,” says Rand Club chairman Rick Currie.
Currie says it is a little sad to let the Kruger statue go, but he says it was a move that made financial and managerial sense for the club.
“The Kruger statue did have a long association with the club, but we knew that it was a piece that was worth quite a bit, so it was a good decision to auction off this one piece instead of lots of smaller pieces. The profit from the sale means we now have more financial muscle to make further advances on club projects and to ensure the club can run profitably,” he says.
The Rand Club is still playing financial catch-up after a 2005 fire that caused extensive damage to the Loveday Street landmark. By the late 1990s, it was also losing members, due to the exodus of big business in downtown Joburg, and suffering from the image problem of being dated and exclusionary rather than exclusive.
Brian Kent McKechnie, a younger member of the club, says the Kruger statue had for some time lost its appeal. Over the past two years, it had been moved from its prominent spot at the entrance to the bar to just outside the women’s toilets.
“No one even noticed that he had been moved. But the sale of the Kruger statue at the incredible price it went for means that it will be better loved and better appreciated by its new owners,” says Kent McKechnie.
In Kruger’s place (back guarding the bar) there’s a bust of Chief Albert Luthuli. This was a piece that was part of later acquisitions that now also include the giant John Meyer portrait of Nelson Mandela that has a prominent location above the grand central staircase in the club. Madiba was a member of the Rand Club.
Kent McKechnie says the club has over the years needed to change with the times, find contemporary relevance and innovate to meet the demands for modern convenience.
“You can’t erase history, but you can add layers to it to tell our collective heritage story,” he says.
The boon in profits from the auction (about R9.2m after deductions) means the club will be able to speed up on some of its capital projects.
Kent McKechnie says the club will revamp its billiards room as well as the bedrooms on the upper floors of the club, which has become an increasingly popular venue for functions and events.
“The presence of the Kruger statue in the Rand Club has always been rather odd and Kruger would never have set foot in a club of the ‘Uitlanders’, but from this week’s auction, he’s ensured the preservation and sustainability of the club.
“So now Kruger is — in endless irony — truly intertwined in the history of the Rand Club.” DM
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