It is with a heavy heart that I write this post after the very sad passing of art and antiques connoisseur, Stephan Welz. Jurgen and I had the wonderful privilege of spending time with him during the last three months of 2015, not knowing that we would in fact be capturing some of his final days.
In my mind I imagined a good, long, old-fashioned tête-à-tête with this legend, where I could ask him about his view on… well, just about everything, but reality was far from this. His schedule was something a 20-year-old would have found difficult to keep up with and the daily staff lunch became a rare moment to shoot some questions at him.
He admitted that checking the approximately 800 emails that landed in his inbox every day had become the least favourite part of his routine and when he shared a few anecdotes of bizarre objects and individuals he had come across over the years, we had tears running down our cheeks from laughter. He had a definite twinkle of humour in his eyes and though he was a very serious businessman he had no problem throwing a witty comment into a very serious conversation to shake things up.
In fact Mr Welz had shaken the foundations of the art establishment in South Africa on various occasions throughout his immaculate career and in all honesty he might not have been loved by everyone for some of his controversial opinions and statements, but it is certain that he was wholeheartedly respected by all for his knowledge and wisdom.
On every occasion that we spent time with him, Stephan was surrounded by rare pieces of fine art. He, however, seemed to be a strong believer that art should be lived and not only observed. Every person that we met along this journey had a special memory of this big man, but there was one that stood out for me. A young girl in her late teens had been invited to a Gatsby themed 21st birthday party and Stephan’s son Konrad had accompanied her. Dressed in her 18-year-old interpretation of Gatsby, she had arrived at the family home, when Konrad handed her a 1920’s headdress, which had belonged to one of the most well-known dancers of all time, Isadora Duncan! Stephan had insisted that this young lady wear the headdress as it had originally been intended to be used and I am certain she was the envy of every person there.
There really didn’t seem to be anything pretentious about Stephan Welz. I suppose his incredible life journey had allowed him to meet so many incredible people, visit so many wonderful places and work with so many priceless objects that in the end, nothing could really impress him.
We stood at the Anton Van Wouw Mine-worker with Hand drill (1911), where he painstakingly showed us the detail of this beautiful piece, but he truly came alive when he told us of his family, his farm and his cattle. He spoke of the wonderful characters from the area who often popped in for tea, the sunsets and then he proceeded to quote a line from an Afrikaans poem. It happened so unexpectedly that I didn’t take note of which poem it was and for the sake of not seeming ignorant in the company of this connoisseur of all things art and culture, I was too embarrassed to ask.
Our own special memory of Stephan Welz will be the moment we met him for the first time at an online auction preview. After we were introduced to him, he took Jurgen by the arm, sat him down on a couch next to him and for an hour the two of them talked about Jurgen’s exhibition which Stephan had visited the day before, art and photography in the market and Stephan’s thoughts on future endeavours in television. I stood at a distance observing the moment, where one of our country’s most influential experts was taking a sincere interest in the thoughts and ideas of someone he had never met.
Many times over the weeks when we were trying to formulate our story, we said that Stephan Welz’s life warrants a book or a documentary film and not just a meager blog post; such was his reputation and impact on the world. More than anything I hate that this post had to be written in the past tense, but we know that his legacy will live on for many generations to come and we know that his impact on the arts in South Africa is undeniable proof of his passion and commitment to this country and its people. Stephan Welz is survived by his formidable wife of 50 years, Carmen, his son Konrad, his daughter Tanya and two grandchildren.