“The Night Watch!” by Yiull Damaso.
  • “The Night Watch!” by Yiull Damaso has been sold for R450,000 – almost double the highest price his work has ever achieved.
  • The painting, depicting an autopsy on Nelson Mandela's body keenly watched by political leaders, was hugely controversial in 2010, drawing death threats and accusations of racism.
  • The anonymous new owner says the work will be treated with respect. 

An anonymous buyer has paid R450,000  for “The Night Watch!”, also known as " Dead Mandela", a painting that eight years ago caused a storm of outrage. It depicts political leaders attending an autopsy on the body of Nelson Mandela, who was frail but alive at the time.

The painting is currently being shipped to Cape Town, but representatives of artist Yiull Damaso do not know whether that represents its final destination, or just a stop along the way before what could be a broker ships it out of the country.

The buyer contacted Yiull (who prefers to be referred to by his first name) directly in September, eight years after the painting was first shown and shot to international prominence.

It is not known if the painting will ever be seen in public again. The buyer, who requested anonymity, batted away questions on what will happen to it now.

“I can appreciate it that [Yiull] wants to know about my interest in the painting, but I unfortunately do not want to divulge on that," the buyer told the artist's representatives.

"I want to add that I also appreciate that it cannot be easy for him to part with the painting, but he can be assured that I would treat the work with respect."

The R450,000 price is a significant jump for Yiull. Earlier this year one of his works set a new record when it sold for R250,000, said Michela Casciani, Yiull's manager. Several of his works have reached prices around the R200,000 mark, she said.

He had offers on the work before, Yiull told Business Insider South Africa this week, but had only recently decided to get it out of the way.

"Three times a week, minimum, people come into the studio and ask to see it," he said. "For eight years I've been explaining it daily. Enough already."

“The Night Watch!” is based on "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp", considered one of Rembrandt's early masterpieces, and perhaps his most important work. It is currently in the news because of plans for a major restoration.

In the Yiull version, the autopsy is conduct by Nkosi Johnson, the HIV-Aids activist who died at the age of 12, while Jacob Zuma and Trevor Manuel look on in apparent approval and Desmond Tutu grimaces. Also present are Cyril Ramaphosa, Thabo Mbeki, Helen Zille, and FW de Klerk.

After the then still unfinished painting featured on the front page of the Mail & Guardian in 2010, the ANC said that it had proven the need for South African media to be regulated by a government-established tribunal. Then spokesperson Jackson Mthembu branded the painting as racist, and linked it to witchcraft.

"We strongly condemn the practice and promotion of the freedom of expression and freedom of the arts which knows no bounds and only sees itself as the most supreme freedom that supersedes and tramples other people's constitutional rights to dignity and privacy, and undermines our values," said Mthembu.

That reaction kicked off a debate on freedom of expression and saw the issue reported widely reported around the world, including the death threats that followed, including in one instance live on air during a radio interview.

Receive a single WhatsApp every morning with all our latest news: click here.

Also from Business Insider South Africa: