The New ‘Scramble for Africa’: In Art

The New ‘Scramble for Africa’: In Art

The Hungry Global Wolves

Barneby’s is the world’s leading art and auction search engine. Its co-founder, one Pontus Silfverstolpe, says: ‘Now the world’s leading auction houses have taken notice of all the new interest in African art and have taken the plunge. Suddenly we have a new scramble for Africa, and this time it’s about art.’ Contemporary African art is hot, its value rising like a feverish temperature. When the international auction houses catch the fever, you can smell the money.

CNN (Cable News Network) recently reported that values in African art have grown between fivefold and tenfold in the last decade. To quote the news service: ‘You’d be hard pressed to find a man who has witnessed the rise in recognition and value of African art better than Prince Yemisi Shyllon, who is reported to be Nigeria’s largest private art collector. He says: “When I started collecting (our) art as an undergraduate in the mid 1970’s, it had virtually no value. You could buy a piece of good art for 20,000 naira (about $63.03 at current conversion rates.) Today it would sell for millions.”

Arab Priest, 1945, by Irma Stern, oil on canvas

At first, for at least a decade, there was only one international fine art auction house holding sales of modern African art in London and New York. Bonhams led the way in 2007 by launching its first South African sale. The success of what has become a twice-yearly event led to a decision in 2009 to cover Sub-Saharan Africa with a sale titled Africa Now. Then came a further move to split this genre into two different auctions of modernist and contemporary art. Prices continue to shoot way higher than their estimates, mirroring the exponential growth of market interest. As long ago as the 2012 Bonham’s auction, Ghanaian born El Anatsui’s New World Map broke records for a living African artist, achieving £541,250. Now his shimmering bottle-top tapestries command £1 million plus figures.

In essence, Bonhams established an international market for contemporary African art, and has been breaking world records for a decade. Ten years ago, paintings by the late South African artist Irma Stern commanded prices in the hundreds of thousands of pounds; now they make millions. In fact the Qatari government bought Arab Priest not long ago for £3.1 million. These dramatic price rises are mirrored by work by Gerard Sekoto, William Kentridge and other South African artists. Art from that country and Nigeria dominates auction sales. ‘But the ripple effect is being felt in all of Africa’s 54 states’, says Silfverstolpe.

Crash Willy, 2009, by Yinka Shonibare MBE, mannequin Dutch wax printed cotton textile leather fibreglass metal

Now at least, three other hungry wolves are circling round the prey of contemporary African art – other fine art auction houses. In May, Sotheby’s held its inaugural sale in London, with pre-sale exhibitions there, and in Cape Town, Johannesburg, New York and Paris. Sotheby’s head of the recently formed Contemporary African Art department, Hannah O’Leary, says: ‘The marketplace has transformed dramatically over the past decade, but despite this long overdue correction, there’s still a considerable way to go towards addressing the underrepresentation of African artists, who account for just 0.01% of the international art market’. In recent years, I’ve seen a huge increase in market demand from collectors in Africa and the African diaspora, as well as international art collectors and influencers who are embracing art from Africa as exciting, innovative and relevant. Sotheby’s entry into the market is in direct response to its current strength and its even greater potential over the coming years. ‘In our sale, you’ll find works by the giants of African art, who’ve established auction prices over $1 million, alongside little-known artists, who have never, or barely, appeared at auction before. This is our opportunity to redress some of the current price anomalies; to identify those artists who we think currently undersell but have huge potential… We hope that the auction and our international exhibitions will provide a fresh platform for these artists, attracting the interest of new collectors and enthusiasts who have not yet explored this field.’ Noble sounding ambitions, yet it’s worth remembering that auction houses take a handsome percentage of the sale results.

World on Its Hind Legs, 2010, by William Kentridge, CorTen, rust finish steel

Sotheby’s post-sale report trumpeted a total of £2.8 million, with a new record set by the Nigerian-British Yinka Shonibare, whose Crash Willy sold for £224,750. This work was the centre piece of the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, London in 2010, a show increasingly including artists of African origin. The entire façade of this August institution, including its logo, was covered by one of El Anatsui’s sensational bottle top hangings. At the Sotheby’s sale, once again his Earth Developing More Roots topped all expectations, selling for £728,750. But equally satisfying was the result achieved for the not so famous South African artist Nicholas Hlobo, who was making his auction debut, and whose mixed media work sold for £60,000, soaring over its pre-sale estimate of £8,000 – £12,000.

After the sale, O’Leary commented: ‘With a record-breaking result, significant prices for artists from every corner of the continent, and first-time buyers bidding alongside established collectors, this is clearly a market poised for growth.’

Christie’s auction house has been catching up, as signified last October with a collaborative show with S.A. Southern Guild Gallery. The drive was to showcase some of South Africa’s top artists and designers. In June this year, Christie’s held an auction of work by some of the world’s leading international contemporary artists who had donated work to benefit Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA), the first major museum of the genre in Africa, and destined to open in Cape Town in September. The show included the usual suspects – luminaries like Yinka Shonibare and El Anatsui, sales of whose work, as we have seen, eclipse many other world artists working today. The proceeds will be used to ensure the long-term sustainability of the museum.

Une vie non ratee (A Successful Life), 1995, by Cheri Samba, acrylic on canvas

The aim of the Zeitz MOCAA is to exhibit, collect, preserve and research cutting-edge contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora and, it is hoped, to attract art tourists to South Africa. This writer travelled to Cape Town in 2016 to explore the art scene there, and how phenomenal it was. Lagos, Nairobi and Accra could well follow suit.

Phillips auction house sent experts to investigate the South African art scenario, and so now we see four hungry wolves scrambling to become involved in the plump, tempting contemporary African art scene.

Yet another auction house is sniffing at the bait. Christophe Person heads the Contemporary African Art department at PIASA, based in Paris. He doesn’t beat about the bush: ‘PIASA’s ambitions to own part of this increasingly valuable market is well within reach.” PIASA is determined to carve out a significant market share by cashing in on its relations with Francophone Africa. Traditional art is still a powerful component of the French art market. An auction last November showed how PIASA and other French auction houses include the significant presence of African diasporic artists, as well as those living in and working on the continent. The PIASA exhibition and sale was organised into four sections: migration, the place of women artists, the ways in which modern artists reinterpret traditional African art, and a group inspired and taught by El Anatsui.

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“Out of Africa, always something new” wrote the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, and the artistic descendants of peoples whose cultures date back millennia, and continue to challenge us with their dynamic images and arresting messages. Contemporary African art, like a great river that never rests, opens the doors of perception to the world, with its vigorous energy, technical brilliance, local and global vision. Silfverstople, co-founder of Barneby’s, reiterates the theme – “There is always something new out of Africa.” He says: ‘Today that new thing is art, and the scramble to acquire it, as the educated view in the capitals of the world, is that South African and African art is a bull market, with one’s investment liable to return a handsome profit in the years ahead.’ The wolves are howling!


Originally trained as a photographer, Juliet Highet lived in East & West Africa as well as India, subsequently also travelling to 52 countries. In Nigeria she began writing professionally and on her return to UK began editing books and magazines. Highet is widely published on travel, the arts, perfumery and much more. She is the author of Frankincense: Oman’s Gift to the World, and a specialist in contemporary Arab culture and its heritage.

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  1. very informative.

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