Sotheby’s first-ever Modern and Contemporary African Art sale took place in London this year in May 2017, totaling £2,794,750 (about $3,600,000)—just shy of the low estimate of £2,800,000. Of 116 lots, 79 sold (while one was withdrawn before the sale).
Despite a slight overall miss, a number of works sold within, or greatly surpassed, their estimates. Plus, the sale surpassed the previous record for a sale of Modern and Contemporary African Art: according to The Art Newspaper, Bonhams held the record at £1.6 from a 2016 sale.
In London yesterday, the top seller was no surprise. El Anatsui’s Earth Developing More Roots, a bottle-cap and copper-wire sculpture from 2011, sold for £728,750 including buyer’s premium. It was estimated to reach between £650,000 and £850,000.
Anatsui’s work was followed by Irma Stern’s 1942 oil painting, Sunflowers, which fetched £416,750, also within its estimate of £350,000 to £550,000.
Two other works also reached six-figure prices: Yinka Shonibare MBE’s Crash Willy, a 2009 assemblage, which went for £224,750 (about $291,000), surpassing its £180,000 high estimate. According to artnet’s Price Database, Shonibare’s previous auction record was $194,000.
William Kentridge’s World on Its Hind Legs sculpture also exceeded its high estimate of £90,000, going for £125,000.
Some 46 lots drew five-figure prices, with a few selling for more than expected. Chéri Samba’s painting Une Vie Non Ratée (A Successful Life), with a high estimate of £30,000, went for £52,000; and his La Femme Conduisant Le Monde sold for £32,000, more than double the high estimate of £12,000.
Two works by Ben Enwonwu more than doubled their high estimates. The painting Negritude, with a high estimate of £35,000, sold for £72,500; similarly, a drawing estimated at £5,000 to £9,000 went for £20,000.
Abdoulaye Konaté’s textile work, Composition No. 25 (Soleil), doubled its estimate with a hammer price of £30,000, while an untitled mixed-media work on paper by Nicholas Hlobo went for £60,000, five times more than its high estimate of £12,000.
The remaining 29 lots sold for prices between £2,750 and £10,000. Some point to the relative affordability of African art as the reason for its recent increase in popularity.
Last month, Hannah O’Leary, head of the department of modern and contemporary African art at Sotheby’s, told artnet News that the demand for her area of expertise was rising “exponentially,” both from African and international collectors.
Institutional support doesn’t hurt the rise either, for a market that has been ignored by Western museums. Currently in Paris, the Fondation Louis Vuitton is hosting a three-part exhibition of African Art, including works from the collection of Jean Pigozzi. And elsewhere in the market, contemporary African art is picking up too: the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair will launch an edition in Marrakech next year, following its successful editions in New York and London.
Nevertheless, the sale was a record-breaker.
Story by Alyssa Buffenstein