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On Monday night the bank of telephones taking bids from outside the room fell ominously quiet when lot 248 came under the hammer. Selling for R5.4m Jane Alexander’s Untitled dubbed ‘the fourth Butcher Boy’ set a new record for South African sculpture moving ahead of Anton van Wouw’s previous high of R2.2m.

The telephones had been a notable feature of Strauss & Co’s even sale with bad connections and foreign accents often disrupting the flow of proceedings of what was a rather subdued evening. Alexander’s Untitled has garnered a considerable amount of interest in local circles due to its connections to one of South Africa’s most iconic sculptures, the Butcher Boys.

Constructed during the same time in 1986 as part of her masters from WITS, Untitled was made as a companion figure that faced the haunting trio from across the room when they were exhibited at the Market Gallery in Jo’burg. However whilst the Butcher Boys were propelled to international fame being included on blockbuster exhibitions at the Venice Biennale amongst others, this figure has had an altogether different trajectory.

Slipping from public view it was bought by an undergraduate student who paid installments from her pocket money. Coincidently, before the Butcher Boys was acquired by the South African National Gallery it was stored in Alexander’s parents lounge where, according to art world legend she considered taking them to the city dump.

What makes this most recent sale intriguing is that with only three bidders in the room, and the telephones silent, it attracted very little of the international attention that the hype leading up to the sale expected. Garnering rave reviews for her recent show in New York at the Cathedral of St John the Divine, it was expected that the sculpture would be bought by a foreign collector or museum.

Instead, with the bidders whittling down to two, it was finally bought by a private Jo’burg based collector who, accompanied by local art dealer Warren Siebrits, left the room immediately after the lot had been secured. Unwilling to give his name, he nevertheless confirmed that the work will stay in the country but that it will be kept in a private collection.

Whilst the Butcher Boys are now considered too delicate to be loaned, there is hope that they will be united with Untitled, which is sure to change the way that they are viewed in the history of South African art.

Written by: Matthew Partridge

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