Johannesburg - Vladimir Tretchikoff's iconic painting "Chinese Girl," said to be one of the most reproduced in the world, is coming home to South Africa after more than half a century in a private Chicago collection, Bonhams auction house announced Thursday after a record sale.
The picture of the beauty with a green-hued skin, ruby-red lips and luscious black hair, which features on mugs, T-shirts, posters and wallpaper, sold Wednesday 982 050 British pounds (nearly $1.5m) - double the expected price and a record for Tretchikoff or any South African artist, according to Giles Peppiatt, director of South African art at Bonhams.
"This was an exceptional price for a work which really does merit the word 'iconic,'" Peppiatt told The Associated Press. "And it's very happy news to hear that it is going home."
Bonhams was packed to standing room only Wednesday with about 120 buyers, interest having been generated by putting the painting on display in recent months in South Africa, the United States and Europe. But the winner of the auction was on the phone and only allowed his identity to be revealed shortly before the sale was sealed. He is British diamond jewelry magnate Laurence Graff, who told Bonhams that the painting will be displayed at the Delaire Graff wine estate outside Stellenbosch in the Cape Winelands, which includes luxury lodges decorated by other works in his art collection.
Manchurian-born Tretchikoff escaped from Soviet Russia and emigrated to South Africa after World War II. Along the way he lived in Shanghai, where he worked as an advertising and commercial illustrator in the 1930s. His official website says the artist started the famous portrait in Java in 1946.
But biographer Boris Gorelik, for this forthcoming book "Incredible Tretchikoff," came from Russia to South Africa in search of the inspiration for the painting, and in 2010 discovered Monika Sing-Lee in Cape Town. She told him Tretchikoff spotted her while she was working at her uncle's launderette at Cape Town's upscale Seapoint suburb, and begged to paint her. She said she was paid about 130 pounds, at today's prices, for two weeks of modeling. In an interview posted at an online blogspot, Gorelik comments on the unmistakable resemblance between the painting and photographs of Sing-Lee in 1952.
Tretchikoff wrote that "Somehow perhaps I caught the essence of Chinese womanhood," in his biography "Pigeon's Luck," co-written with Anthony Hocking. "I had a lot of experience to draw on. ... My mind and soul went into this painting, and perhaps there lies the explanation for its success."
He sold the painting to a Chicago woman while touring the United States in 1951. She paid $2 000, then considered a lot of money, Bonhams said.
Wednesday's sale outperformed two longtime leaders in South African art at auction, Peppiatt said, citing "Landscape Stellenbosch" by Jacob Hendrik Pieerneef sold for 713,250 pounds, and Irma Stern's "Congolese Beauty" for 541,250 pounds.
"Chinese Girl" sometimes is called the "Mona Lisa of kitsch," angering Tretchikoff who insisted he was a serious artist.
He died in Cape Town in 2006 at the age of 92.