Sotheby’s is an international auction house founded in 1744 in London, United Kingdom and headquartered in New York City, United States. It is one of the world’s largest brokers of fine art, with many locations around the world. In 1966, Sotheby’s opened a department of African and Oceanic Art, based on the collection of Helena Rubinstein. The sales organized by this department consist mostly of sculpture and tribal art pieces. Since 2016, the auction house opened a department dedicated to Modern and Contemporary African Art. This department usually holds two sales per year in London, with consistent outstanding results for artists in that category including Cheri Samba, El Anatsui, Marlene Dumas, David Goldblatt, and Pascale Marthine Tayou. The sales include a selection of paintings, photographs, drawings, and sculptures from Africa and its diaspora, with a strong focus on the postcolonial era. The most recent sale saw half of lots selling above their high estimate, with a total result of $2.9 million. Sotheby’s auctions are usually held during the day. The majority are free and open to the public, with the exception of occasional evening auctions, which require tickets.
Christie’s is a British auction house founded in 1766 by James Christie. It is one of the largest and most famous auction houses in the world, serving multiple areas worldwide. The company has a department of African and Oceanic Art, which has sold highly prized sculptures and masks from sub-Saharan Africa, Polynesia, Melanesia, and Australia. Sales are held biannually in Paris, in April and October, alongside thematic and single-owner sales held in both New York and Paris – the most recent sale totaling an amount of $1.7 million. Christie’s has also opened a department that represents South African Art, following a long history of selling work by South African artists. Spanning many years of history, the department includes paintings, photographs, topographical pictures, and sculptures of important artists such as Irma Stern, Pieter Hugo, and William Kentridge. Chrisite’s has simplified its buying process by opening more live auctions around the world, and allowing bidding online. The auction house also organizes private sales, which provides a tailored service for seasoned collectors, occasional buyers, and those looking to acquire their first painting or work of art.
Founded in 1793, Bonhams is a privately owned British auction house and one of the world’s largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. It has a worldwide network of offices and regional representatives in many countries. The company has multiple departments covering most facets of the art market, on which three are dedicated to the African art. First, the department of African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art offers different traditional works including masks, sculptures, tools, and ceremonial items. Then, the department of African, Modern and Contemporary Art regularly hosts Africa Now – the biannual sale of post-war and contemporary art from across the African continent. Since 2009, the sales offer works in various media including painting, drawing, and sculpture from established artists such as Ben Enwonwu, Yinka Shonibare, and Cheri Samba. The most recent Africa Now auction achieved a total of $2.3 million in London, with works from Ben Enwonwu leading the sale. Finally, the department of South African Art offers modern and contemporary art from the country, producing exceptional prices since 2011. Bonhams hold the world records for major South African artists with the highlight being the $5 million sale of Irma Stern's "Arab Priest".
Phillips is a privately owned British auction house founded in 1796 by Harry Phillips, a former employee of James Christie. It has headquarters in London and in New York City, with several sales rooms and offices in different regions. Unlike the other auction houses mentioned above, Phillips does not have a separate department dedicated to African art. However, the company still offers several works of artists from Africa and the African diaspora. Three times a year, the department of 20th Century and Contemporary Art conducts day and evening sales, which often feature works of African and African-American artists. In 2010, Phillips – then called Phillips de Pury organized the sale Africa, which recorded a high-unsold rate of 38.7% for a total of $1.4 million. Many artworks from renowned African artists such as Cheri Samba, William Kentridge, Seydou Keita, and Malick Sidibe failed to reach the anticipated result. Since then, Phillips has progressively offers contemporary African art through its auctions in London and New York, with better results for both emerging and established artists. The recent New Now sale held in April in London saw a sculpture by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, entitled “Ballet God (Poseidon)”, reaching $141,980.