Staff Writer

The University of New England will offer five works by noted South African artist Irma Stern at auction in June in an attempt to raise money to help conserve its existing collection of art and to supplement that collection with strategic new purchases.

The international auction house Christie’s will offer the art work – four paintings and a charcoal drawing – at its spring impressionist and modern art sale in London. The works could fetch between $2.1 million and $3.1 million, according to Christie’s estimates.

The paintings are by far the most valuable pieces in the UNE collection, said gallery director Anne Zill.

The university deemed them expendable because they have little to do with Maine, do not fit within the gallery’s collecting mission and are not related to any of the museum’s curriculum offerings.

“They just do not fit in the collection, which is why they have been in storage for so many years,” Zill said.

The works have been exhibited twice in 36 years – by Westbrook College in 1978 and by UNE in 2009. UNE acquired the Stern art work as part of its merger with Westbrook in 1996.

The journey of the work from South Africa to UNE is an interesting story with minor Maine ties. They were part of the collection of Rebecca Hourwich Reyher, an American writer from New York. Dorothy Healy, founder of the Maine Women Writers Collections, was friendly with Reyher, and instrumental in arranging Westbrook College’s purchase of the Reyher art collection in 1976.

In addition to a portrait of Reyher, the colorful paintings and charcoal drawing are of Cape Town and African women. Stern painted them in the 1920s, at the very beginning of what became an illustrious art career.

Reyher hung them in her New York apartment, where they remained on view only to her visitors and guests.

For UNE, the timing of this sale couldn’t be better, said Andrew Golub, dean of library services. UNE only discovered the value of these paintings a few years ago.

“We knew they were the most valuable paintings in our collection, but we didn’t know realize by how much they had increased in value until three years ago,” he said.

The university has spent the better part of two years researching the art work, exploring options to accommodate and satisfying internal concerns about the sale, Golub said. Other institutions have received criticism in recent years for selling art work for the betterment of the bottom line.

But Golub said UNE’s decision is motivated by a desire to improve the collection by making it more accessible with art that targets the education needs of its students and the aesthetic desires of the larger community.

“The proceeds from this sale are staying in the art program. We see this as an opportunity to grow our collection in ways to better serve the university and to take better care of the art that’s still in our collection,” he said.

Stern, who died in 1966, is better known in Europe than in the United States, Zill said. That is why Christie’s opted to hold the sale in London instead of New York. But the paintings – two are double-sided, with images on the front and back – and drawing will be on view at Christie’s at Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan April 27 to May 1. UNE is planning an event at Christie’s in New York as a way to honor the art work and the artist.