Value of Cape artist un­der the spot­light

An art dealer has been ac­cused of at­tempt­ing to cash in on ob­scure painter’s work

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - NEWS - BIANCA CAPAZORIO

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.

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