Thursday, December 3, 2009

African art: the next China?

I've just received a flyer from Bonhams, inviting consignments for their next African art sale, scheduled to take place on 10th March 2010 at their New York galleries on Madison Avenue.

The flyer says:

"Bonhams' sale of African Modernist and Contemporary Art in April 2008 was an unrivalled success, setting many new world record prices and casting a spotlight on the African artists who are now achieving an international reputation.

The sale was a clear indication that the market for these works is buoyant and if you wish to take advantage of this strength now is the time to consign."

Well, they would say that, wouldn't they? But actually, the sale (which was in April 2009, not 2008) was far from "an unrivalled success." I was at the sale and if you paid careful attention as I did, and ignored the chandelier bidding (when the auctioneer pretends to be taking real bids when none are actually being offered), it was clear that this is market is patchy at best and barely breathing at worst. If 50 percent sold is a buoyant market then Bonhams' way of measuring buoyancy differs from mine.

Bonhams' flyer makes it sound as though their sale helped promote certain artists ("who are now achieving an international reputation.") In fact, it is galleries like London's October Gallery that are doing most of the hard work and taking all the risks to promote African contemporary artists such as El Anatsui, Nnenna Okore and Romuald Hazoumé. Bonhams are merely bandwagon-jumping, as all auctioneers do.

Moreover, the more prominent artists included in the sale — such as the multi-talented South African artist William Joseph Kentridge, and the Netherlands-based painter Marlene Dumas — are already established names in the overarching contemporary art field. An untitled work by Kentridge in charcoal and coloured chalk failed to reach its estimate of £20,000-30,000 at Bonhams' sale, as did an oil on canvas-board work entitled Refuge in the Library, which had been expected to make £100,000-150,000.

Meanwhile, Marlene Dumas, whose market star has risen exponentially in the contemporary art field over the last ten years, was represented by The Blonde — a small work in washy watercolour and pencil on paper depicting a reclining nude (right). This too failed to attract a buyer at an estimate of £80,000-120,000.

Those unfamiliar with the art market and the auction process will read Bonhams' promotional puffs and believe that all is well in this market. It's not.

Giles Peppiatt, Head of African Art at Bonhams, said after the April sale: "A lot of people are looking at this market thinking it might be the next China. We are hoping that in a couple of years this art market niche will be turning over as much as £10m."

Wishful thinking? Or a self-fulfilling prophecy? Roll on, March 10.

The rare, museum-quality work illustrated above left — an acrylic and watercolour on card entitled Negritude by the late Nigerian modernist artist Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu (1917-1994) — made the top price at Bonhams' April sale, fetching £66,000 against an estimate of £20,000-30,000.