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Uneven Debut for Contemporary African Art at Bonhams Sale

The growth of emerging art markets in China, India and Russia, among other countries, has been a characteristic of the recent global art boom, but what happens when the market goes into recession?

LONDON—The growth of emerging art markets in China, India and Russia, among other countries, has been a characteristic of the recent global art boom, but what happens when the market goes into recession?

Bonhams supplied one answer with its recent “Africa Now” auction devoted to contemporary African art, held on April 8 in London. The selection offered in the sale was somewhat limited and highly experimental. Just 50, or 53 percent, of the 90 lots sold, and the auction was 41 percent sold by value. The total of £352,080 ($517,560) fell far short of the estimate of £730,000/1.1 million.

“This was always going to be a brave effort,” said Giles Peppiatt, director of African art at Bonhams. Despite this, Bonhams has already scheduled a follow-up sale for December.

Two-thirds of the artists hailed from either Nigeria or South Africa, and one-third had never had their work sold at auction outside Africa before. Among the top lots in the sale were Sculpture 2 (Helicopter), 1997, a carving by El Anatsui, which sold for £30,000 ($44,100)—more than doubling the estimate of £8,000/12,000 and setting a record for a carving by the artist—and Negritude, 1957, a painting by Benedict Enwonwu, which sold for a record £66,000 ($97,020), well above the estimate of £20,000/30,000. Another work by El Anatsui, Kente Rhapsody, 2002, a sculpture of tropical hardwoods and tempera, sold for £21,600 ($31,752) against an estimate of £20,000/30,000.

However, six of the ten highest-estimated lots, notably works by William Kentridge and Marlene Dumas, failed to sell. Of those that did, Kentridge’s serigraph Couple, 1991, sold for £20,400 ($30,000)—just clearing the £20,000 low estimate with the premium included—and an untitled 1985 work on paper by the artist sold for £18,000 ($28,460), below the estimate of £20,000/30,000.

This sale was partly an offshoot of Bonhams’ regular series of South African art sales—for which the total tripled to $7.5 million last year from $2.5 million in 2007—and partly the product of the success of artworks by a small group of Nigerian artists which had been offered in the house’s regular “Exploration and Travel” sales. Last December, for instance, a painting by Enwonwu sold for £19,200 ($27,788) on a £700/1,000 estimate.

Bonhams billed the auction as its first such dedicated sale, but there were some precedents: In June 1999, Sotheby’s held a highly successful sale of contemporary African art from the collection of Jean Pigozzi (ANL, 7/13/99) in which rock star Mick Jagger was among the buyers.

In September 2000, Bonhams also held a specialized sale of mostly Nigerian art at its smaller outpost in Chelsea, London. In 2005, Calmels Cohen, Paris, held a sale of works from the Jean Marc Petrus collection. The Petrus collection included works by 35 artists, most of whom had been featured in the influential “Magiciens de la Terre” exhibition at the Pompidou Center, Paris, in 1989. There have also been specialized sales of African regional art held at auctioneer Arthouse Contemporary, Lagos, Nigeria, since 2007.

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