African art on the art market: calm after the storm


“Cautious” is probably the best way to describe the art market’s current mood with respect, notably, to Contemporary African artists. Despite solid prices still being hammered for major Modern signatures and for some very ‘museum-visible’ Contemporaries, auction results have cooled off for many of the artists who were intensely coveted last year. The urgency of purchasing “at any cost” has given way to cautious sobriety, and, in some cases, outright procrastination.

Women artists particularly supported

Generally speaking, art auctions in 2023 have had mixed results, as was to be expected after the fervor of last year and a global context affected by numerous tensions. The generally dampened climate has not spared the world’s leading art auction operator, Christie’s, whose prestigious 21st Century Art sale organized in New York on November 7 generated satisfactory results, but nothing exceptional. The forty lots brought in ‘only’ $107.45 million against a combined high estimate of $143 million. However, the sale did produce remarkable results for the female artists in the prestigious catalog, notably the young British woman of Nigerian descent Jadé FADOJUTIMI (1993) who set a new record at nearly $1.7 million for her painting A Thistle Throb (2021), a record that was subsequently beaten the following week at Phillips (Quirk my mannerism (2021) sold for $1.9 million). This dazzlingly successful artist (she was only put up for auction in 2020) has been asserting herself all the more firmly in the upper echelons of the market since integrating the powerful Gagosian gallery in the summer of 2022.

Another auction record was well reported in the press: back in October, Julie MEHRETU’s large untitled diptych (Untitled (2011), 183 x 487 cm) set a new record for an artist of African origin when Sotheby’s sold the work in Hong Kong for $9.3 million. In 2015, the same work fetched $2.85 million at Christie’s New York, so its price increased by 227% in just 8 years. A month later, the artist confirmed his price increase by exceeding $10 million for the first time at Sotheby’s (Walkers With the Dawn and Morning, November 15, 2023). Of Ethiopian origin and a resident of the United States since early childhood, Julie Mehretu, like Jade Fadojutimi, creates large-scale abstract works that are particularly in touch with the issues of our time. The recent success of these two artists suggests that there is high-end demand for cutting-edge Contemporary abstraction, as well as for the ‘black portraiture’ that has flooded auction rooms in recent years.

Julie Mehretu’s turnover at auction (copyright

Several artists showed signs of deflation

African painters from the second half of the 20th century consolidated their price levels, including Uche OKEKE and Yusuf GRILLO, both of whom attracted new records ($185,000 for Okeke and nearly $500,000 for Grillo at Bonhams inLondon). But the market was less enthusiastic towards the Contemporary artists who were subject to strong speculative surges last year. Several artists who have attracted substantial overbidding in the past returned to price thresholds more in line with the estimates provided. This contraction was particularly evident on Contemporary artists specializing in black portraiture, such as Oluwole OMOFEMI (1988). Last year, some paintings by this 35-year-old Nigerian fetched results ten times higher than their estimates, exceeding $150,000. In recent sales, they only reached their estimates. Likewise for Otis Kwame Kye QUAICOE (1988) whose latest results often hammered below the low estimates. His best result this year was $28,000 for a portrait of a young girl that Sotheby’s was hoping would fetch $10,000 more. Demand has also contracted for large canvases with two figures by Emmanuel TAKU (1986) whose works offered in London by Phillips and in Marrakech by Artcurial last Automn, remained unsold despite attractive low estimates around $20,000. In 2022, works by the same artist sold for over $150,000 and even $250,000.

Oluwole Omofemi, Daydream (2019), $23,185$ (est. $18,200 – $24,300, Sotheby’s, Modern & Contemporary African Art, 10/19/2023)

We see a similar deflation on works by Aboudia, whose annual auction turnover is down 75% vs. his resounding results last year. The number of his works sold at auction has halved compared with 2022 and his best result has shrunk from from $614,000 (Children’s Games (2012) at Holly International Hong Kong on 27 November 2022) to $180,300 this year (Untitled (2017) at Christie’s online on 9 March 2023). The slowdown in his market was confirmed during the recent autumn sales where 40% of his works offered by Christie’s, Phillips, Sotheby’s, Bonhams and Artcurial Maroc were bought in. Last year, in the same period, his unsold rate was only 12% despite a denser supply and everyone was rushing to acquire works by Aboudia. This year, the demand pressure has  substantially declined.

Aboudia’s price index at auction (copyright

Several artists supported by leading galleries and whose works have been integrated into major institutions have also experienced deflation. Ouattara WATTS (1957), one of whose paintings was acquired by the MoMA in 2020 and whose career gained new momentum in 2022 after joining the Almine Rech gallery (which presented his works at the TEFAF New York 2022, at Art Basel Unlimited and in a solo exhibition at Frieze London in 2022). These events precipitated strong demand pushing six works by Ouattara Watts to reach prices above $100,000 last year. One of them was hammered at a new record of $781,200. But despite the promotional work that Almine Rech is still conducting, Ouattara Watts’ best price this year has been around $66,000, substantially lower than the amounts his works generated last year. After a overly and intense price surge, collectors seem to have a hard time taking a position today.

Ouattara WATTS’ turnover at auction (copyright

Caution and moderation do not always explain the ambivalence of the latest results. It is indeed difficult to understand why a large drawing by Portia ZVAVAHERA (1985) with an ideal pedigree since it was commissioned by the National Gallery of Zimbabwe as part of the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, sold timidly below its low estimate ($34,000). It is also difficult to understand why an abstraction from the series Chalks by Pascale Marthine TAYOU, an artist whose works have been included in the collections of the Tate Modern, did not find a buyer this year for around $70,000 in London whereas it sold for nearly $94,000 last year in Paris! Beyond a general deflation – an expected prudence that has affected the entire global art market, African Contemporary art appears to have been particularly by-passed in recent months. This temporary lack of momentum could constitute a step towards a more mature market, while offering unique opportunities to acquire works without paying high prices…

Artmarket article published by our partner Diptyk Magazine