Ten days ago, the British government issued a directive stopping all gatherings of more than two people in public in order to slow the spread of coronavirus that currently stands at 34,000 infections and 3,000 deaths in the country.
Sotheby’s, the storied auction house in London had scheduled its latest Modern & Contemporary African Art sale to begin a few days after the prime minister’s directive so at the last minute was switched to an online-only sale for the first time in this category. It featured over 100 works from 58 artists across 21 African countries.
The auction ran from Mar. 27 to Mar. 31 and saw a stunning 46% jump in the number of bids from a year ago with sales closed up at $2.9 million.
Though nearly three-quarters of Sotheby’s clients used digital bidding in 2019 the rise in numbers was unprecedented for African Art sales at the auction house. Up to 35% of the African art bidders were new to Sotheby’s, translating to 27% of buyers purchasing lots for the first time at Sotheby’s. Almost 30% of bidders in the sale were under 40 years old showing that digital sales might be attracting a younger clientele than the typical buyer from art auctions.
Collector and commercial interest in modern African art has risen globally over the last decade with exhibitions at home of the continent such as Art X in Lagos and Dakar Biennale in Senegal helping to build awareness. But there’s also been heightened interest in African art in Europe and North America at major galleries as collectors show more interest.
But it’s not just newer, up and coming African artists generating interest. Classic African art from earlier generations is also driving much renewed interest. A painting by one of the most revered African artists of the 20th century, Ben Enwonwu, sold for $305,000 in its auction debut. Sefi, an early painting by the Nigerian master was until recently known to have been a portrait of an unknown “Nigerian princess”, but Sotheby’s specialists noticed intricate details which lead them to believe the sitter could be Princess Judith Safinet ‘Sefi’ Atta. The artist’s bronze sculpture, Afi Ekong, which depicts one of Nigeria’s most famous female artists, and who at the time was married to Sefi’s brother, also sold for $153,000.
Last October, Enwonwu’s latest find, Christine, was sold by Sothebys at $1.4 million, over seven times its original estimated price. His best-known portrait, Tutu, a depiction of Nigerian royal princess Adetutu Ademiluyi (Tutu), often dubbed the “Nigerian Mona Lisa,” was sold through rival London auction house Bonham’s at a record $1.6 million in 2018.
The latest auction also featured several debut appearances at an international auction. Records were established for Tanzanian artist Elias Jengo’s Wakulima (The Farmers) while Nigerian artist Shina Yussuff’s Royal Welcome and Cameroonian photographer Samuel Fosso also broke his previous record twice when two photographs from his ‘Tati’ series sold for $26,000 and $24,500, soaring above their estimates.
Influenced by Mozambican art and Portuguese modernism, a further record was set for Bertina Lopes’ ‘Portrait of a Woman’ selling at $10,000. Thirteen bids were placed on a painting by Zimbabwean artist Richard Mudariki which eventually sold at $8,400. The artist is best known for his satirical use of iconic figures and symbols. This sale broke his previous auction record as it did for many other artists showing African art is getting a big boost on the global stage that might be bolstered too by digital auctions which open the art to a new, younger audience.
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