Forgeries of SA exile's art flood market

26 February 2012 - 03:56 By SHANAAZ EGGINGTON
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THE art world is abuzz at the discovery of forged drawings for sale in the UK and South Africa under the name of celebrated artist Dumile Feni.

The graphic artist and sculptor, who died in exile in New York in 1991, won critical acclaim for his portrayal of suffering during apartheid.

Feni was known as the "Goya of the townships", and his works are collected around the world. A large charcoal drawing done in 1967 sold for over R1-million in Johannesburg to a private collector two years ago.

Cape Town art collector Bruce Campbell Smith said several forgeries of Feni's work had surfaced for sale privately and on auction.

Campbell Smith wrote the book Dumile, Artist in Exile and is an expert on his work.

"At the end of last year, I was asked to authenticate a group of drawings by a private consultant," he said.

"The drawings were accompanied by a letter of authentication and a handwritten letter from a Mama Gope, who claimed to have worked for a Jewish couple in Johannesburg who 'gave' her the drawings.

"To me, the drawings were clearly forgeries. Then I saw two drawings that were to be auctioned by Straus & Co in Johannesburg. I had no doubt that those works were not originals."

Strauss & Co confirmed that the drawings were withdrawn from the auction.

Campbell Smith said: "I have now seen a number of works by the same hand which have been referred to me, and it is a matter of concern that someone is producing these works."

Conor Macklin, owner of the Grosvenor Gallery in London, which hosted Dumile's first UK show, was offered a suspicious group of 28 items last year.

"As soon as I was offered these works and the dealer said they have a certificate of authenticity, the alarm bells started to ring," said Macklin.

"My first thought, even before seeing the works, was: why do they need a certificate? Why did they not just simply offer them as works by Dumile? The answer is very simple: because there is a doubt as to their authenticity."

Omar Badsha of SA History Online, an artist who was a friend of Feni, said: "I'm shocked and appalled that people are forging Dumile's work and passing them off as original."

Art dealer Baylon Sandri of the Stellenbosch Modern and Contemporary Art Gallery said: "I was approached by two men at an exhibition at the Standard Bank Art Gallery in Johannesburg.

"They claimed that they had just received a portfolio of his work from [a man that] Dumile lived with in New York. I decided not to buy."

The Sunday Times has traced an art collector who purchased a fake Feni. He asked that his identity be withheld for privacy reasons.

"Dumile is a sought-after artist whose work rarely comes up for sale. I bought one from a reputable dealer after getting an opinion from three other experts, including the director of an international art auction house," he said.

He discovered that he was duped after an insurance company's assessment.

"I'm not taking any action, because the dealer that I bought the drawing from gave my R70000 back. I believe he was also taken in and, in turn, got his money back from the person he bought it from."

A Feni self-portrait in pen and ink on tracing paper will be sold tomorrow at Barnardi's Auctioneers in Pretoria.

Neoclassique Auctioneers owner Darren Neofytou said they had purchased Feni's work before.

"We have, however, stopped buying and selling Dumile's work owing to the controversy in the market," he said.

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