Ben Enwonwu dominates Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary African art auction

Posted on
Ben Enwonwu, Christine, 1971
Ben Enwonwu, Christine, 1971

In the astronomical world of contemporary art where sales at auctions amounted to $29.1 billion in 2018 (according to the latest Art Basel and USB Global report), £4 m ($4.6m) is infinitesimally small. Yet, it calls for a great deal of relativism as that is precisely the new record for a single auction of Modern and Contemporary African Art.

In this growing niche of the art market, the aggregate sale of £4,002,750 at Sotheby’s 4th Modern and contemporary African art auction is a remarkable achievement, up by 43% from their inaugural African Art auction in May 2017. During the afternoon of the auction, 82 of the 103 lots listed swapped hands representing a selling rate of 80%.

Ben Enwonwu, the influential Nigerian artist who passed away in 1994, dominated the auction in the same way he did at Bonhams’ African art auction a month prior. At Sotheby’s, all of Enwonwu’s 11 paintings and watercolours sold for £1.8m, almost half the overall value of the sale. All eyes were on lot 17, Christine, one of the highlights of the auction. Painted in 1971, Christine captured the beauty of a family friend, Christine Davies, who was living at a time in Nigeria with her missionary husband. The portrait fetched £1.1M, almost five times its high estimate, after a feverish 13 minutes bidding war. It’s the second-highest record for the artist who made headlines last year when one of his long-lost portraits of a Nigerian princess, Tutu, unexpectedly reappeared and was sold at Bonhams for a record £1.2million. 

Related Story: Celebrated Nigerian artist, Ben Enwonwu dominates a lacklustre Modern & Contemporary African Art Auction at Bonhams


Talk of Christine emerged in July when Quartz reported that a Texan family found out, after a Google search, that a long-held portrait was, in fact, a family heirloom. The exceptional auction in London was a culmination of a well-orchestrated promotional campaign. Besides the press coverage announcing the discovery of the precursor of Tutu (dubbed the African Mona Lisa), highlights of the auction including the painting Christine was on show in New York to attract international collectors.

Mohamed Melehi, On Red No1, 1963
Mohamed Melehi, detail On Red No1, 1963.

Although on a totally different scale, Mohamed Melehi was the second artist to create a sensation with the hammer prices for his work. His colorful painting On Red No. 1 sold for £75,000. It was estimated at £6,000 to £8,000. The artist’s other work was a drawing on jute textile. It sold for £32,000 against a high estimate of £12,000. Melehi’s abstract paintings made of wavy colourful motifs are a fusion of the German school Bauhaus’ aesthetic and the calligraphic forms of the artist’s native Morocco. Last year, one of his paintings sold at Sotheby’s for £8,750 halfway between the bracket of the low estimate of £7,000 and the high estimate of £10,000. Since then, collectors have had the chance to rediscover Melehi’s practice through the travelling exhibition ‘New Waves’ that spanned three pivotal decades from the early fifties to the eighties. The exhibition commenced at the Mosaic Rooms in London and is now on view at Macaal Museum in Morrocco until January 2020.

El Anatsui, Pilgrims, 1991
El Anatsui, Pilgrims, 1991

The artworld is most familiar with El Anatsui’s glimmering wall sculptures made of flattened bottle tops, whose prices often hover around £1million. However, earlier on in his career, the artist produced a large number of wood sculptures, often sold at auction for about £40,000. That was the low estimate Pilgrims (1991). It eventually sold for £87,500.

Modern and Contemporary African art Auction at Sotheby's Modern and Contemporary African Art Auction, Oct 15th, 2019.
Modern and Contemporary African art Auction at Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary African Art Auction, Oct 15th, 2019.

Among the young generation of African artists, Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga has established a solid record at auctions. Unsurprisingly, both his work Influence (2016) and Duty of Memory sold respectively for £50,000 and £62,500, twice their low estimate of £25,000 apiece.

Since his debut at auction with Bonhams in 2018, hammer prices for Cristiano Mangovo have steadily increased. His painting Dia de Felicidade sold for £40,000, a new record for the artist.

Cristiano Mangovo, Dia de felicidade
Cristiano Mangovo, Dia de Felicidade, Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary African Art Auction, Oct 15th, 2019.

In the absence of official reports and reliable data from galleries, the results of dedicated African Art public auctions have become the best way to indirectly gauge the growth of this market. The result of the auction confirms a general interest in contemporary African art and Ben Enwonwu in particular. It also reinforces Sotheby’s lead position ahead of Bonhams on this segment of the market.

Related Story: Young Cameroonian artist Marc Padeu sets surprising new records at Piasa Contemporary African art auction

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *