Value of Cape artist under the spotlight
An art dealer has been accused of attempting to cash in on obscure painter’s work
AN OBSCURE Fish Hoek artist who died in 2006 is in the middle of an art world furore.
Glenn Strutt, an art dealer believed to be a Capetonian living in Switzerland, has had some success with major British auction house Bonhams selling three of Helen Anne Petrie’s paintings for a combined total of £280 000 (R3.5 million), believing she was far better known than she really was.
But questions started to arise around the artist’s provenance and even her existence, and Bonhams has stopped selling her work.
While there is proof Petrie did exist and did some amateur painting in her life, her profile has been inflated through a series of online articles and press releases, which appear to be the work of Strutt or the Strutt Family Trust. Wikipedia has deleted entries on both the trust and Petrie.
The claims being made about Petrie include:
She travelled extensively in Europe, where she met and worked with Dutch artist Jan Vermeiren – who would only have been six years old at the time.
Her paintings are owned by several royal families including the British, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, Japanese, Spanish and Greek royalty.
Her paintings were – or are – owned by big name celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Maria Callas, Bill Clinton and David and Victoria Beckham.
One piece also referred to Fish Hoek as South Africa’s version of The Hamptons.
The reality appears to be that Petrie lived a reclusive life. Some accounts indicate that she lived with her mentally ill brother until he died in 2002, after which she appeared to become mentally ill herself.
It is understood she did some painting early in her life, but she disappeared from the scene around 1976, probably due to the death of her parents. A number of these works are believed to have been bought on auction by Strutt.
Press releases on several small and seemingly unchecked websites claim that Petrie was an anti-apartheid painter who wrote in her diary that the art taste of her native Cape Town’s “small art public was extremely backward”; hence she sold much of her work in Europe. One such press release states: “Helen Anne Petrie, the woman, the benefactor, the pacifist, the friend. The true matriarch of SA female artists.”
A reply to one such post, by a commentator named Carol, said: “Helen Petrie was my parents’ schizophrenic neigh- bour. Somebody appears to be making her profile far more glamorous than it was.”
Another states that a work was sold to an unnamed United Arab Emirates family for $1.3m (R9.68m) by the Strutt Family Trust. An internet search for the trust reveals several more press releases on many of the same sites as the Petrie releases, stating that the trust had bought into major international companies such as British American Tobacco and Anglo Platinum. No evidence of such buy-ins exists beyond these statements.
Earlier this year, Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper ran an article stating that Bonhams and the Queen’s Art collection had been duped into accepting paintings from the unknown artist.
Bonhams sold one painting for nearly £15 000 (R184 800).
A spokesman for the auction house, Julian Roup, said this week that “in an emerging market like this, where some artists are brand-new to the auction world, one has to be careful.
“In this instance the Helen Petrie works came from a client with an impressive collection of South African art. When provenance was sought, he provided a dossier with documents from high-profile UK and South African collectors.
“We established that a leading South African bank had acted as executor and trustee of her estate in 2006 and confirmed that she had been a reclusive painter. Since we became aware of the issues surrounding this artist and those trying to promote her work, we no longer sell pictures by this artist.”
Artist Mark Hayhurst said he had received e-mailed documentation “proving” the existence of Petrie following a piece he wrote on his site southafricanartists.com.
“It showed some basic school records and personal correspondence yet nothing to support the bold claims that her work has long been held in public and private collections around the world. The material resembled something that might have turned up in an old trunk purchased at a Sunday car boot sale.”
Hayhurst said that after the column had been written he had come into contact with someone who had lived next door to Petrie. “It seems clear that, while this person clearly did exist and was a passable amateur artist, her story seems to have been greatly embellished in a cynical and deliberate attempt to cash in.”
Attempts to contact Strutt were unsuccessful. In several press releases he, however, denies any wrongdoing and insists that Petrie is a valuable artist. He has written several pieces attacking jour nalists, publications and individuals who have disagreed with him, threatening “financial ruin” and legal action.
FACT OR FICTION: Some of the paintings by Helen Anne Petrie, the reclusive Fish Hoek artist who is at the centre of a campaign to increase her profile and the value of her paintings. Her work includes a number of portraits as well as various local landscapes.