Portrait of a man (Lentswana) – £310,000 at Bonhams.

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Two of his paintings were the uncontested stars of a 59-lot sale of South African art at Bonhams (25/20/12.5% buyer’s premium) in New Bond Street on September 12.

Portrait of a man (Lentswana) and Three School Girls had been acquired from the Gainsborough Galleries in Johannesburg and remained in the same hands for over 50 years.

Exhibited together

The pair, seen for the first time since they were exhibited in the late 1940s, are early examples of the sensitive portrayals of black people for which Sekoto became renowned.

It was in Johannesburg, during the apartheid regime, that Sekoto witnessed the extreme measures taken to exploit and alienate the black population. His dignified portraits challenged the racist rhetoric of the National Party that likened black people to animals. These works are particularly desirable as they pre-date the artist’s self-imposed political exile from South Africa to Paris in 1947.

Portrait of a man (Lentswana), a 18in x 15¾in (45.5 x 40cm) oil on canvas laid to board, sold for £310,000, more than double the top guide. Three School Girls sold for £250,000 against a £120,000-180,000 estimate. Bonhams hold the record for Sekoto at auction for Yellow Houses, District Six, a striking early work that sold for £520,000 in 2011.

In all, the sale achieved just shy of £950,000 but was hampered by a low sell-through rate of 47% as buyers funnelled their interest into the established names on offer.