There are auction houses all over the world, but only a couple regularly present sales around the theme of contemporary African art: Bonhams with Africa Now and Sotheby’s. Unlike these two auction houses, Christie’s has no dedicated contemporary African art sale, but the auctioneer is introducing new day art sales that will venture beyond the Western canon. Last year, specialised sales dedicated to contemporary African art were organised in England by Sotheby’s and Bonhams, in France by Piasa, Artcurial, and Cornette de Saint-Cyr, and in South Africa by Stephan Welz & Co and Strauss & Co. Together these sales generated several tens of millions of dollars.
In March 2018, Sotheby’s second sale of Modern and Contemporary African Art in London generated $2.5 million and set fourteen auction records in this category. The auction included works by 62 artists from 16 countries across Africa, many of whom have rarely been offered at international auction before. The sale was led by two Nigerian artists: pioneer of African modernism Ben Enwonwu, whose work Africa Dances (1962) sold for $265,744 and Njideka Akunyili Crosby whose self-portrait À La Warhol (2005) sold for $283,460.
In February 2018, a painting titled Tutu (1974) by Ben Enwonwu, recently rediscovered in a London apartment, was sold for nearly $2 million at Bonhams, exceeding its high estimate of more than triple. The sale was broadcast live in Lagos, where bidders were able to participate in real time. With more than 20 works sold for around $2 million, Enwonwu dominated the sale. In parallel, several works from other contemporary African artists met with mixed results. Some showed a modest increase, while others either made a loss or were unsold.
While some auction houses have presented high unsold rates in 2010 such as Phillips (39%), Bonhams (60%), Artcurial (74%), and Gaïa (83%), these numbers have since slightly decreased every year. This could be indicative of a boom in contemporary African art. In May 2010, Phillips sale dedicated to African art generated $1.4 million with record auction for Yinka Shonibare whose work Man on Unicycle (2005) sold for $108,100 and the Congolese painter Chéri Samba whose work J’aime la couleur (2007) fetched $98,500.
Last year, the art market was particularly effervescent in France which hosted various African art events including exhibitions at La Villette, the Galeries Lafayette, the Louis Vuitton Foundation, and art fairs such as AKAA and Art Paris Art Fair. In Africa, the art market is still burgeoning but the organization of auctions by local auction houses in South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya is contributing to foster a more liquid and stronger domestic market. In June 2017, Strauss & Co hosted its winter sale in Johannesburg, with a total record of $6.7 million and an 87% sell-through rate by lot and value combined.
In contrast, some international auction houses such as Bonhams already have a strong presence on the continent, providing access to the global art market for a new generation of collectors, dealers and artists. Moreover, the international dynamic sustained by events such as the Dakar biennial and art fairs in Johannesburg, Lagos, and Marrakech is continually growing. In fact, the contemporary African art market is still offering valuable works at reasonable prices, in comparison with modern African art. These works will remain affordable until the true value potential of the contemporary African art is developed on the global art market.