The Masters dominate Sotheby’s African Art Auction

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Modern and Contemporary African Art Auction at Sotheby's
Modern and Contemporary African Art Auction at Sotheby’s – October 2018

Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary African Art auction became a bi-annual event this year. For this second auction of the year, 70 artworks (out of the 99 selected) were sold for a total of £ 2,274,625, roughly halfway between the total low estimate of £ 1,802,000 and high estimate of £ 2,567,000.

As was the case during their inaugural dedicated auction in 2017, the top lot was a sculpture by the leading artist El Anatsui of Ghana that sold for £ 670,000, falling within the boundaries of the pre-sale estimates.

In an African art market generally dominated by South Africa, Nigeria and more recently The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sotheby’s has continued to present a broad and diverse selection of works. This year was no different with a noticeable selection of artwork by three Ethiopian senior artists: Afewerk Tekle, Alexander Skunder Boghossian and Wosene Worke Kosrof. Most of their paintings was sold within the expected price range, with “The Defender of his Country” by Afewerk Tekle achieving £32,500: 1.6 times its highest estimate.

Papa Ibra Tall, The Warrior, 1966
Papa Ibra Tall, The Warrior, 1966

The biggest highlight of the sales came from artists hailing from the west coast of the continent: Senegal. Papa Ibra Tall’s Afro-futuristic “The Warrior,” was the biggest surprise of the afternoon. According to an article published on the auction house’s website, the artwork created in 1966 was a gift to Duke Ellington, a friend of the artist. The painting featured a hybrid creature, half human, half robot, in motion, within a visually attractive maelstrom of lines. Stylistically it stood apart in a category of its own and drew feverish bids among collectors. The room erupted in applause when the hammer went down after it sold for £118,750 against a high estimate of £12,000.

Although no other sales came close to those heights, other records were to follow. Another Senegalese artist, Ibou Diouf’s red “Marche Aux Tissus” was sold for £25,000 against an estimate £8,000.

Ibou Diouf, Marche Aux Tissus
Ibou Diouf, Marche Aux Tissus

Ablade Glover’s three paintings of the auction, “Market Scene,” “Argungu Fishing Festival,” and “Market Profile” were all auctioned off for prices over their respective highest estimates.

Moments later, “Stateless People,” a painting by Uzo Egonu, a Nigerian artist who passed away in 1996, was sold for £43,750, 2.4 times its highest estimate.

The last of these record-breaking moments belonged to Gerard Sekoto. At Bohnamhs’s previous South African sale, his paintings depicting South African village scenes had already driven his auction prices upwards (although nowhere near his sales records of £ 602,400 established in 2011 with “Yellow Houses, District Six”).

This small piece, titled “Village Scene” didn’t trigger a bidding war but still went under the hammer for £13,750, over double the high estimate. Gerard Sekoto was ending the senior painters’ over performance at auction, a trend initiated by Congolese Fréderic Trigo Piula whose painting “Ta Télé” sold for £43,750. (over the double the high estimate; that became something of a mini-trend too).

There was probably some disappointment with the sales record of Ben Enwonwu‘s work, but overall the afternoon belonged to the African masters.

The African art segment is still burgeoning and hasn’t reached the pricing level of the general Contemporary Art market. However it is evident that the international interest generated lately has led to searching deeper and re-evaluating the work of modernists and senior African artists. I am looking forward to the upcoming auctions in France at Piasa and St Cyr Corneille to see whether that trend continues.

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