After 27 years in prison for anti-apartheid activism and his tenure as South African president, Nelson Mandela found solace in drawing. In 2002, he created about 22 drawings, and many of these were lithographed to raise money for the Nelson Mandela Foundation. He only kept one drawing in his personal collection until his death in 2013, a sketch of the the prison door at Robben Island, where he was held for 18 years. In purple crayon, Mandela drew the bars of the prison door with a key inserted in the lock of the door and a corner of the tiny cell in a brown-yellow shade.

Nelson Mandela, The Cell Door, Robben Island, image © Bonhams Nelson Mandela, The Cell Door, Robben Island, image © Bonhams

On May 2, that drawing, titled The Cell, Robben Island, was auctioned at Bonham's in New York and offered for sale by Mandela's daughter, Makaziwe Mandela-Amuah. Presented with an estimate of $60,000-$90,000, the sketch ended up selling for $112,575. 

According to the auction house, the drawing was the first work by Mandela's hand to appear on the auction market. Giles Peppiatt, Director of the Modern and Contemporary African art Department at Bonhams, described the work as "one of the most poignant and important" of the former president, demonstrating "his indomitable spirit in a characteristic honesty and clarity."

Nelson Mandela drawing, photo by Grant Warren. Courtesy of WeTransfer and The House of Mandela Art (Via Artsy). Nelson Mandela drawing, photo by Grant Warren. Courtesy of WeTransfer and The House of Mandela Art (Via Artsy).

Mandela-Amuah, who decided to put the sketch up for sale, said, "When my father retired as the president, he didn't have much to do. I think for him, art was a good way of expressing himself or trying to come to terms with his history and his (I wouldn't want to say) demons but just coming to terms with his whole life."

Cell 5, now a place of pilgrimage visited by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, is cramped. In Long Walk to Freedom, his autobiography, Mandela wrote, "I could walk from one end to the other in three steps."

The Nobel Peace Prize winner posed in the cell where he spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment. Robben Island, South Africa, 1994, image © Jürgen Schadeberg
The Nobel Peace Prize winner posed in the cell where he spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment. Robben Island, South Africa, 1994, image © Jürgen Schadeberg

However, in 2002, the same year this drawing was finished, he said, "Today when I look at Robben Island I see it as a celebration of the struggle and a symbol of the finest qualities of the human spirit, rather than as a monument to the brutal tyranny and oppression of apartheid. Robben Island is a place where courage endured in the face of endless hardship, a place where people kept on believing, when it seemed their dreams were hopeless and a place where wisdom and determination overcame fear and human frailty."

The sale, a Bonhams' first for contemporary African art in New York City, landed six new world records for works by artists such as Irma Stern, Demas Nwoko, Alexander Skunder Boghossian, and Christo Coetzee. 

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