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Irma Stern’s “The Arab Priest” will be on show at the Iziko South African National Gallery (ISANG) until 28 July 2012, ahead of its export to the Qatar Orienatlist Museum in Doha.

The painting was sold to the Qatar Museums Authority (QAM) for a record-breaking £3 million at the Bonhams South African Sale on 23 March 2011. Previously owned by a private collector, the work had been on long-term loan to the Irma Stern Museum in Cape Town prior to appearing on auction. The sale marks the highest ever hammer price for a work by a South African artist.

The export of the artwork to Doha was intercepted by the South African Heritage Resource Agency (SAHRA) on the basis of the work’s heritage significance to South Africa. SAHRA argued that the work should not leave the country, despite the legitimacy of its sale. This claim is on the back of slack export laws which allowed for the relocation of many of South Africa’s most valuable works of art and heritage objects to collections abroad, a situation which saved many works banned in South Africa under apartheid. However, with soaring prices being fetched for South African historical paintings on auctions in Europe and the United States, many of the country’s most valuable heritage assets are permanently leaving the country.

The controversial nature of SAHRA’s claim — which seems to associate heritage value with monetary value — was contested by QAM, leading to a deadlock between the two agencies which has lasted almost a year. This came to an end when SAHRA approved the temporary long-term export of the painting, with a strict proviso that the work return to South Africa periodically during the export period. The export permit issued by SAHRA stipulates that the work reside in Doha for a renewable period of twenty years. However, during each twenty-year period, the work will have to return to South Africa four times, for a period of 12 months each time.

In partnership with the Department of Arts and Culture, ISANG is hosting the painting for public view on its premises in the Company’s Gardens in Cape Town. The painting is widely
considered one of the finest examples of Stern’s Zanzibar paintings, works provoked by Stern’s infatuation with the “exotic” people and environment she encountered on her frequent travels to Zanzibar in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Iziko South African National Gallery is located between parliament and the Jewish Museum in the Company’s Gardens in Cape Town. Tel: 021 481 3970.

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