Hannah O’Leary on Sotheby’s and the Future of African Art

Hannah O’Leary on Sotheby’s and the Future of African Art

Hannah O’Leary holds a Master’s degree in History of Art with Cultural Anthropology from Glasgow University. She first joined Sotheby’s in 2005, initially working in the Dublin and Melbourne offices. In 2006 she joined Bonhams in London, where she helped pioneer the first international auctions of South African Art and Modern & Contemporary African Art, becoming Head of Department in 2010. With 10 years’ experience in this field, and having overseen record-breaking sales in both categories, she was delighted to return to Sotheby’s in 2016 to further develop this burgeoning market. In this interview, she talks about Sotheby’s inaugural auction of Modern and Contemporary African Art.

What would you say have been Sotheby’s significant achievements since turning its attention to modern and contemporary African art?

Sotheby’s entry into the African market has had an immediate positive effect. We are one of the biggest brands in the art world, as well as one of the most respected and trusted, and so our entry marks the development of the contemporary African art market from being of local or niche interest, to the mainstream. This has brought a new and much wider audience to this field, thereby allowing the market to grow and develop significantly faster than the smaller auction houses and galleries could. This is demonstrated by the fact that we set new world record prices for 35 major African artists within the first year and a new record sale total for an auction in this category.

Beyond our specialist African sales, we have been pro-actively increasing the diversity within our international art auctions, where further records for artists from the African diaspora have been set, such as Kerry James Marshall, whose Past Times sold for over $21 million. Sotheby’s is proud to be at the forefront of promoting the market for art from Africa and its diaspora.

El Anatusi, Tagomizer, 2005, Mixed Media, 154.94 cm x 215.9 cm. Estimated between £550,000-750,000

Values for Nigerian art continue to rise steadily with artists like Ben Enwonwu and Njideka Akunyili Crosby at the forefront. While this is a welcome development, prices still pale when compared to those for South African art. What reasons can you adduce to this and what is the geographical spread of your collectors for Nigerian art?

The art market in South Africa is far longer established – Sotheby’s started auctions there in the 1960s (before exiting in 2010), and in addition to the various auction houses there, there are many more commercial art galleries and public institutions than there currently are in Nigeria. There are also a much higher number of collectors in South Africa, which is home to approximately half of all the UHNWIs (Ultra-High Net Worth Individuals) on the African continent, i.e. the people who are likely to collect art, and boasts four more times the number of UHNWIs in Nigeria. Furthermore, South African artists have long had exposure to international art collectors through international biennales, museum exhibitions, and art fairs such as Basel and Frieze, than their Nigerian counterparts.

However, Nigeria is rapidly closing this gap and is, to my mind, the more exciting market. The growth of the Nigerian market over the past decade has been phenomenal, with many high-end commercial galleries opening, the foundation of the Arthouse Contemporary auctions, the participation of Nigeria at the Venice Biennale, and the planned opening of the Museum of Nigerian Art at the Pan-Atlantic University (PAU). In addition, international commercial galleries, such as Jack Shainman and Mariane Ibrahim in New York, and Stephen Friedman, Tyburn Gallery and Tiwani Contemporary in London are promoting more Nigerian artists. This has helped propel Nigerian artists such as Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Odili Donald Odita and Toyin Ojih Odutola to international stardom, and of course, the prices for their work have increased as a result. With every Sotheby’s auction, I see more international collectors bidding on Nigerian artworks as well as new and young buyers, which bodes well for the growth of this market in the coming years.

What other trends in collecting are we likely to see?

I would like to see a wider variety of artists at the top end of the market. The Nigerian art market is currently dominated entirely by Ben Enwonwu, yet other great Nigerian Modernists deserve commercial recognition, including Ben Osawe, Uche Okeke, Erhabor Emokpae and Clara Ugbodaga to name just a few. I would also like to see more institutional collecting (both public and private) so that the public can access great collections.

Ben Enwonwu, Obitun Dancers, 1984, oil on canvas. Estimated between £150,000-200,000

Male artists dominate the sales of African art on the international market auction. In your observation, are there fewer practising female artists on the continent, and why do you think this is?

Georgina Beier once told me that the women of Osogbo could not attend the art workshops she ran with her husband Ulli at the Mbari Mbayo Club between their commitments to childcare and working at the market all day. So there may be practical reasons for there being fewer female artists historically, but I think this is just a small piece of the puzzle.

The discrepancy between male and female artists is an international issue and one that has only just begun to be addressed in the past couple of years. There have been great women artists throughout time, but they have been consistently ignored or written out of art history by an art world controlled by men. Of the top 100 artworks ever sold at auction, only one female artist appears on the list; Georgia O’Keeffe, who comes in last place. However, we are starting to see changes, with more female artists included in institutional collections and exhibitions, as well as in the marketplace, and more female curators and collectors effecting that change.

While fewer women artists are represented in the African art market, they are some of the most powerful. The most expensive artists from across the continent are women, and number among the highest-selling female artists internationally: Njideka Akunyili Crosby from Nigeria, Irma Stern and Marlene Dumas from South Africa, Julie Mehretu from Ethiopia and Wangechi Mutu from Kenya, have all sold for at least double their closest male rival.

Is there a specific piece you’re especially proud of playing a key role in bringing to market?

I am extremely proud to have sold some of the most expensive African artworks of all time, including setting the current world records for some of my favourite artists Gerard Sekoto, Irma Stern, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, and Yinka Shonibare MBE. Beyond the commercial aspect, world records are an indicator of a new level of recognition for the importance of those artists. However, I have personal highlights in every auction and there are too many to list here – I draw great satisfaction from my job, and not just in the prices we secure. I have a passion for research, so I find untangling issues of authentication, attribution and provenance enormously satisfying, as well as discovering unknown or missing artworks. I also find the stories behind every artwork fascinating, including that of the seller and the buyer, and those personal relationships often take years to develop. Selling an artwork to a museum, such as Irma Stern’s Arab Priest, which will be on public view in Qatar, or to raise funds for a museum, such as the work Njideka Akunyili Crosby offered for the redevelopment of the Studio Museum, is particularly satisfying.

In enhancing Sotheby’s involvement in art from the African continent, what strategies and partnerships are you adopting?

As a company, we offer many more services than our primary auction sales, all of which benefit from our expansion into the African market, and vice versa. Our advisory service Art Agency, Partners offers collection advice and management for individual collectors, foundations and institutions, as well as estate planning and management for artists and their heirs. Museum Services make sure we are up to date with museum’s long-term collecting and exhibition plans, as well as giving them advance notice of African artworks they may like to acquire through auction and private sales.

In the longer term, the African market will benefit from Sotheby’s Mei Moses, an analytic tool which uses repeat sales–the sale of the same object at different points in time–to track changes in value, and our Department of Scientific Research to test for authenticity and allow us to understand artists’ techniques better. I have been working with the Museum Network to ensure African institutions are well represented, and often lecture at the Sotheby’s Institute, which is currently offering evening classes dedicated to modern and contemporary African art. Finally, we are lucky to have one of the most extensive international networks in the business, and my colleagues as far away as Mexico, Tokyo, Sydney and Dubai have embraced our new African sales and helped me find both buyers and sellers all over the world.

William Kentridge, Kinetic Sculpture (Bicycle Wheel), 2016. Estimated between £70-90,000

It seems that the market for African art has become bifurcated between auctions and art fairs. How do you describe these two distinct markets and what influences do they have on each other, and by extension on the artist’s career?

I see the art world as an eco-system, and the art fairs and auctions have two separate, but symbiotic, roles to play. The main difference between the two is that galleries at art fairs promote an artist on the primary market, while at auction we present works by artists who already have a strong reputation and whose works are being resold on the secondary market. The work of a good gallerist allows an artist to qualify for inclusion in an auction, and strong auction results allow gallerists to sell their stock more efficiently. Art fairs provide dealers with an excellent opportunity to promote their artists to a much broader audience than their physical galleries allow. Major collectors travel the world following the art fair circuit and might discover an artist or gallery at, say, 1-54 in London when they may not have considered travelling to Lagos or Abuja. Similarly, a major international auction will attract a much wider audience than a local auction on the continent. So, both offer a great platform for artists and sale categories in different but complementary ways.

Full article published in Omenka Magazine Volume III Issue I.

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