Two giant cycads are at the centre of a dispute over their recent sale and relocation to a top Western Cape wine estate.

And a Sunday Times report says despite continuing wrangling over signed and unsigned deals, an agreement with new owner Koos Bekker, and a contested sale arrangement, the rare plants are now on display at the billionaire’s Babylonstoren Estate in Franschhoek.

These dinosaurs of the plant realm are centuries old and were part of an 11-stem cluster of Wood’s cycads (Encephalartos woodii) uncovered by Durban Botanic Gardens curator Dr John Medley Wood in 1895.

The main stem was planted at the then Natal Botanic Gardens and other stems were donated to Kirstenbosch in Cape Town, the Pretoria Botanical Gardens and Kew Gardens in the UK.

Two of these ended up in a Durban private garden owned by Robin Thorpe.

He was sequestrated and the property was placed in the control of a family trust, which was taken over by the Banavie Trust in 2000.

The trust had the plants valued by a cycad dealer, who classified them as ‘superb specimens’ and very old.

Using the standard value of R20 000 per centimetre, the valuer estimated their worth at R14m. This amount was lowered after a failed attempt to sell them showed that cycad dealers were unlikely to pay more than a quarter of the plants’ estimated value.

In 2019, the Banavie Trust gave a mandate, which the Sunday Times has seen, to an agent asking him to act on its behalf to secure a buyer for the two specimens for R5.5m.

The agent in turn contacted businessmen Fanie Vermaak and Jan van Vuuren of Rockview Trading for help.

Van Vuuren approached Bekker, the chair of Naspers, in January 2020. Bekker sent his own experts to examine the cycads, and they settled on a price of R7.2m – leaving Van Vuuren out of the loop, he said.

With no signed agreement in place with Van Vuuren, the R7.2m sale went ahead between Babylonstoren and the Banavie Trust.

Full Sunday Times report