African Art:  the new Black Continent’s Gold Mine

A mid strong demand and skyrocketing prices

Contemporary African art is increasingly attracting the attention of investors worldwide

Even if it might bother the purest at heart among some art collectors, it is an evidence to the growing interest raised, that African artists are going to spur on the international markets. British auction house Bonhams has seen average lot prices increasing 5 fold - to about $50,000 - since it started specializing in contemporary African art in 2007.

ArtHouse Contemporary Limited, an auction house based in Lagos, Nigeria, notes that pieces bought at their very first auction, back in 2008, have increased up to 10 fold in value today.

As a whole, the trend falls within a general rise in value for African art - Sotheby's, whose auctions currently combine African and Oceanic art, took in an "outstanding" $84 million in 2014, compared to just $4 million a decade before; they are now considering specialized sales for African art alone.

It'd be hard pressed to find a man who has witnessed the rise of African Art better than Prince Yemisi Shyllon, who is reported to be Nigeria's largest private art collector. When he started collecting art as an undergraduate at university in the mid 1970s, it had virtually no value. “You could buy a piece of good art for 20,000 Naira [about $100]. Today it would sell for millions.” Said him committed; he now has about 7,000 pieces, which he displays in his house in Lagos. “I've studied the movement of artwork’s prices sold in auctions in Nigeria since 1999,” said him proudly, and adds: “I can tell you how much the artworks have grown over time - if we draw a correlation analysis we come up with a positive graph about the fast growth of the market, enough to form a solid basis for investment.”

Lately, at least half of the contemporary African art sales registered at auctions worldwide are believed to come from buyers within the continent, mostly from Nigeria and South Africa. “Nigeria has the largest population and it's also the largest economy and oil producer today,” said Kavita Chellaram, chief executive at ArtHouse Contemporary Limited.

“Half the billionaires of Africa live there, between Nigeria and South Africa, so I think the prominence of the art here is quite relevant to the financial market.”

Experts also mention that the strong growth of African economies and the rising wealth of the middle class are leading factors in the surge of interest around contemporary African art. Giles Peppiatt -  director of African Art auctions at Bonhams, said his numbers confirm the investment charm and appeal of African art, even though the average prices are still reasonable: “I think that in the African sales, the majority of the works sell between $10,000 and $60,000. It's still relatively modest, and that's healthy, because it means it's a market where new entrants can come in. I think it's a 10th of the entry price of some other markets, but that's to be expected because it's a very new one.”

A more global interest towards a bright future

The rise in fame of contemporary African artists on the international stage is also starting to fuel solo exhibitions abroad, such as the one offered by the Brooklyn Museum in 2013 on Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui, whose “New World Map” went for a record £541,250 at auction in 2012. Yet, it's not easy to decode why the trend has exploded only just recently.

According to Peppiatt, there are two reasons: “Until about 15 years ago there was no email, there was virtually no internet and it was hard to do these sales without modern communication. I also think it has to do with the general globalization of the art world: people are now much more used to seeing other cultures' art at auction.”

At the moment, large international players such as Bonhams still hold their events in Europe or in the U.S. “I think it'll be a while before we start auctioning works directly in Africa,” continue Peppiatt. “We have offices in Lagos and Johannesburg. There's also the advantage that there's a whole structure of art dealing and art selling here in London - the conservators, the transport and the shippers. Everything is here and it's very easy for people to buy and sell in London.”

And yet ArtHouse Contemporary, who hold their auctions in Lagos, are noticing encouraging local trends: “There's much more awareness”, said Chellaram. “People all over Nigeria today are looking towards art; Kenya has opened an auction house and Uganda's having an auction this year, so there is a bit of a domino effect in Africa,” she continued. “Auctions can provide a platform to showcase African art to the world.”

According to Prince Yemisi Shyllon, who's planning to open a private art museum in Lagos, the fundamental role of art shouldn’t be overshadowed by the investment appeal: "I don't believe collections should just be about collecting art. I think it should go just beyond it. “Propagating the culture or the heritage of the people and way of life of the people is the thing which really matters: it should finally go to the extent of creating a legacy.”

November 15, 2017
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