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A six month overview: African Art auction results, Europe & Africa

The two new reports, African Contemporary and African Modern due to be released next week measure the temperature of the secondary market in 2021 largely by comparing it to the first six months of 2020. With online art trading being more successfully realised through auctions than online art fairs, the conditions in the secondary market have become more important as markers of confidence or revealing of patterns. As such we have been keeping close tabs on what has been transpiring in all the dedicated African auctions that have taken place this year. In these reports we dig into the data of all the auctions that took place between January 2020 and June 2021, of which 45 took place in the various art capitals were African art sells well - Johannesburg, Cape Town, Marrakesh, Casablanca, Lagos, London, Paris and New York. Some of the findings are positive; the value of contemporary and modern African art is increasing.

What follows below are some of the events and records that caught our attention this year.

The secondary market for African art used to kick off in February with two sales in Cape Town intended to tie in with the Investec Cape Town Art Fair. Due to the cancellation of that annual event, it wasn't until March that the veritable season began with four major auctions taking place in; South Africa, Paris and two in London.

The Aspire Art auction took place first with a sale with a bit of a French flavour - perhaps due to their previous collaborations with Piasa - the French auction house. Certainly, the artist whose work tends to exceed high estimates at Piasa’s sales did so in the Aspire sale. Such as Zemba Luzamba whose Dandy Club I (pictured left) an oil painting the Congolese artist produced last year, was one of the few works on the auction that exceeded the high estimate for it, fetching R190 000 - 58% higher than the R120 000 earmarked for it. Overall most lots fetched prices under the high estimates set for them. This fact and other features of this auction seemed to mirror the findings in Corrigall & Co’s report African Art Auctions Europe, October 2020, which showed that largely only a very few lots were exceeding the high estimates and the sell through rates on high-priced works was lower than in 2019.

Following Aspire's auction was a small sale conducted by Art Curial that took place in Paris. Up until this year, this auction house only conducted a sale in Morocco, Marrakesh, in December. However, since Christophe Person, formerly head of African contemporary and Modern at Piasa, Paris, joined Artcurial, there has been a shift in their sales. This one was dedicated to art produced at the Hangar art centre, established in Elisabethville in the 1940s by a French artist. It was a very successful sale with a 72% sell through rate. Almost all the works by Pilipili Mulongoy sold for double (or more) the high estimate. Such as the Return from Hunting (not dated) a gouache on paper work that was expected to fetch €3500 yet pulled in €12000.


The Bonhams sale in March also presented a boost for the market. It was starting to look as if the days of Irma Stern’s fetching high prices from R10-million to R20 million were over. However, last year when I spoke to Giles Peppiatt, director of the African Modern and Contemporary department at Bonhams auction house in London, he told me that he was confident he had a Stern that could fetch £1million in this March 2021 sale. Arab with Dagger (1945) almost made it… coming in (with commissions) to £922 750 - that is almost R19million. The other high-value Stern on the sale The Water Carriers didn’t find a buyer, however.

Thomas Baines painting, The Eastern Cataracts of the Victoria Falls,1869. .

The surprising result on the auction was not for the Stern but the figure fetched for the Thomas Baines painting, The Eastern Cataracts of the Victoria Falls, which was painted in 1869. The artwork fetched almost double its high-estimate - £574 750 - they expected up to £200 000. That’s R11million-ish.

The Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary African Art auction, which followed had, as always, some surprising results. None of the Zanele Muholis sold, nor did a stunning work by Abdoulaye Konaté.

What was particularly striking about this auction, compared to the results of most others in the year was the fact that the overall turnover generated from this auction was almost 25% higher than the expected outcome. It prompted the following questions; Could the art market be recovering? Or are Sotheby’s being less bold with their estimates? Our analysis of their October 2020 auction revealed that their estimates were perhaps a little higher than they should have been with the sell-through rate at the top end being fairly low.

This positive outcome was due to a number of lots out-performing expectations; notably an untitled abstract work by, Mohamed Melehi, and a vivid quasi abstract work by Demas N. Nwoko titled Folly. Works by Ben Enwonwu, did well too, dominating the sale, with African Dances fetching double the high estimate set for it.

Christies don't conduct a dedicated African sale but ever quick to capitalise on market trends, staged a very successful auction dedicated to Aboudia. It was a white-glove sale - everything sold - and overall the lots exceeded the low estimates by 626%! Incredible. La renaissance du Christ (2020) was estimated to sell for $18 000 and fetched $187 500.

The results from Strauss & Co's April auction suggested that in South Africa the market for contemporary art is less buoyant than it has been in Europe, as per the March sales at Bonhams and Sothebys. Only a handful of high-priced contemporary works fetched sums that exceeded the high estimates for them - artworks by Christo Coetzee, Edoardo Villa, William Kentridge and Pieter Hugo. All the William Kentridge works offered on the auction sold, which is a positive turn, given they have not been moving on other auctions. However, only one work - Rhino, a two colour lithograph with collage (pictured left) - fetched more than its high estimate.

While one part of the market might appear to be waning - another might gaining steam in the most unlikely of places. There has for some time been the perception that Chinese collectors are not terribly interested in contemporary art from Africa. Few dealers have made an effort to attend Hong Kong-based fairs and those few that have, have not done well. Or so it is said. The tide might be turning. More than likely the speculation around African American artists in the US may have infiltrated the Chinese market. Or at least this appears to be the case based on the very promising sales of works by African artists at the Sotheby's spring contemporary sales in Hong Kong. It was particularly exciting to see such a good result for an untitled 2020 work by Wonder Buhle Mbambo, which fetched 327,600HKD - that is around R600 000. Godwin Champs Namuyimba’s Days of Revolution 1 was expected to fetch 80 000HKD but attracted 441,000 HKD. The market for Amoako Boafo remained strong, despite the fact the portrait on offer, Grace, wasn’t executed in his signature style. It was the results in the evening sale that solidified the value of work by artists from our continent. Kudzanai-Violet Hwami’s Skye waNehand, fetched 3,780,000 HKD and Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Eastern Entrance achieved an incredible 6,467,000 HKD. That is over R11-million.

Bonhams New York African Modern and Contemporary sale in May was hugely disappointing. With all the activity going on in New York in that month - Frieze New York - this sale should have been better than last year. It was depressing capturing the results. Not only was there a low sell-through rate - 46% but also few works exceeded the high estimates set for them. In truth this has always been a small sale and this year it perhaps didn’t offer a huge range of exciting works. Yet something was clearly amiss - even one of the Aboudia works didn’t find a buyer - when there has been a little Aboudia frenzy in the US!

The Strauss & Co May auction lifted the spirits with a high sell-through rate of 74% but only 50% of the top 10 high-priced lots found buyers. So yes art is selling in South Africa but there are few buyers looking for art over a million. Not surprising given the current climate. Yet Irma Stern’s Still Life with Lillies (1948) (pictured) did go under the hammer for over R6million. So depends. And once again - as has been the pattern - only a handful of artworks fetched amounts that exceeded the high estimates for them. Saint Francis by Sydney Kumalo, two works by Keith Alexander and a Lynn Chadwick brought in healthier sums than expected. Certainly contemporary works did less well than modern. Some auction favourites in the contemporary sphere, from works by Blessing Ngobeni to Nelson Makamo and a work by Penny Siopis failed to sell. Were they priced too high?

The results from the African & Modern sale at Piasa in Paris were disturbing, specially in light of the poor results of Bonhams Africa sale in New York earlier in the month. The sell-through rate was only 46%! There have been some shifts at the French auction house’s African modern and contemporary department with Olivia Anani and Charlotte Lidon taking over the reigns. Is Artcurial taking the lead now in African modern and contemporary? Is the French market for African art big enough for two competing players? Contemporary and modern works both underperformed given the expectations. Though surprisingly it was a handful of contemporary works that fetched higher amounts than expected. Mwangi Hutter’s Circles Around Oneness (Singularly Unified), 2016, fetched almost double, as did an untitled work by Aboudia. Barthélémy Toguo’s What's your name?, 2004, also did better than expected.

Just when it was looking like the market for African art was waning with poor sell-through rates for two auctions in a row - Bonhams New York and Piasa’s Paris sales dedicated to this ‘category’ - Artcurial’s auction of African modern and contemporary in Marrakesh on the weekend showed some good results with a 66% sell-through rate. Modern and contemporary works by Mohamed Melehi helped steer the sale to a positive place with some of his works fetching way beyond the high-estimates. Such as an Untitled work, dubbed Composition, circa 1969/1970 fetching 2,6 million Morrocan Dirham - the high estimate for it was 800 000 MAD. All 16 works by this abstract artist from Morocco sold. It was a feast for Melehi fans.

In June, a work by South Africa’s Cinga Samson titled Two piece 1, made in 2018, sold at a Philips evening contemporary sale for… $378 000 - that is over R5million!!! They were expecting at most $35 000! Arne Austrheim, the Oslo based seller was happy with the results - "I wish Samson all the best of success and I am convinced he will go far," he said to Corrigall & Co. Based on figures for similar sized work by Samson offered by Blank in 2020 €15 000 (ZAR250 000) this was a good result for Austrheim. He might have paid less given it was bought two years earlier… and before Samson was signed to an international gallery.

Expectations for Artcurial’s June Contemporary and Modern Sale in conjunction with South Africa’s Aspire Auctions was high - the catalogue was impressive. There were over 220 lots - usually European sales boast half that number. There was a really broad range of good works from around the continent on offer. It was easily the best African Modern Contemporary sale of the year! Staged in Paris, during the summer at the time of the delayed Africa 2020 Season in France it should have been a great success. However, only 46% of the lots sold! Despite this depressing reality - there were some surprises. The two Muholi’s sold. One of Dylan Lewis’s leaping animals also fetched double its estimate. Godwin Champs Namuyimba’s Dreamers, 2019, fetched €78 000 despite the high estimate of €25 000.

So, what do all these results add up to? Are the sell-through rates lower in Paris than in London or Cape Town? Are modern works selling as well as contemporary?



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