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ANOTHER RECORD: Auction houses must love Laurence Graff. In 2008, the London-based jeweler and businessman — known as “The King of Diamonds” — paid $24.3 million for the Wittelsbach diamond, a 31.06-carat deep-blue stone. Two years later, he shattered the world record for a single purchase of any jewel at auction when he paid $46 million for a unique pink diamond. Recently, he picked up the original “Chinese Girl,” a painting by Russian emigre artist Vladimir Tretchikoff, often referred to as the world’s most reproduced painting, at an auction of exclusive South African art held at Bonhams in London. Graff’s winning bid clocked in at close to $1.5 million, almost double the reserve price, and certainly the highest paid for any Tretchikoff painting.
Tretchikoff was born in Russia in 1913 and moved to China with his parents as a young boy. He later settled in South Africa, where he lived till his death in 2006. “Chinese Girl,” a vivid painting of a young Chinese woman in embroidered garb, whose face is rendered in blue, is considered the height of kitsch by some critics, and iconic by many fans around the world, who hung framed reproductions of the painting, purchased from Woolworths in the Fifties, on their walls. The original has remained until now with the Chicago family who bought the work directly from Tretchikoff for $2,000 in 1954.
The decision to buy the painting was “immediate,” said Graff via e-mail. “As a young man I noticed the Tretchikoff image continuously displayed in many locations in print form. You can imagine my surprise to have learned of the sale of the original painting.”
Graff, who also enjoys a reputation as a contemporary art collector, intends to bring “Chinese Girl” back “home” to Cape Town, where it will be displayed in his luxury wine estate, Delaire, in Stellenbosch, alongside the rest of his personal art collection, which features many of South Africa’s finest contemporary artists, including William Kentridge, Sydney Khumalo, Deborah Bell and Anton Smit. There will be a special launch party at Delaire, Graff disclosed, to celebrate the acquisition of the painting, with proceeds going to the charity, FACET (For African Children Every Time), established by Graff in 2008 as a way “to give something back to the country, which gives us our remarkable diamonds.”