The international auction house Bonhams has held a sale of South African art in London that achieved record prices for a number of works. The auction house says this marks a coming of age for South African art, proving demand for it has reached beyond the domestic market to international bidders. Catherine Drew reports.

The leading lot in the collection of nearly 300 pieces of art was the 1937 "Still life with chrysanthemums and a pumpkin," by Irma Stern.

Brisk bidding pushed the price to $635,000.

Other works by Stern, a Cape Town artist who died in 1966, fetched tens of thousands of dollars.

George Plumtree is head of business development at Bonhams. "I was working in an auction house out in South Africa 10 years ago and this sort of sale in London with these sort of prices would have been almost unthinkable then," he said.

Stern was the most prominent artist in the diverse collection that Bonhams gathered from around the world.

Another major artist with several pieces was Gerald Sekoto. Many consider him the first African artist to paint in a European manner.

Sekoto's works also fetched prices in the tens of thousands of dollars. He died in 1993 at the age of 80.

Giles Peppiat is Bonhams' director of South Africa Art. He says the auction house is so confident of the demand for South African art that it plans to hold similar auctions twice a year.  "The market is going through this large upheaval, because in some ways the South African market has been so domestic and it can't exist in that bubble anymore and the prices outside are becoming at such a level that people really want to export them."

Those who have watched the market for years say the world is only just waking up to South Africa's artists. "Only a few years ago, the geographical isolation of South Africa, and also partly its political past, meant that there was a degree of isolation and therefore these artists were not really looked at by non-South Africans," Plumtree said.

The auction at Bonhams proves that has changed, so much so that the South African government has become concerned the country could lose some of its most valuable works of art. Two pieces at the London auction were sold on the proviso that they remain in South Africa.