Contemporary African art – mixed auction results



In 2010, contemporary African art has been the theme of numerous sales. However, despite new records for certain African artists, the high unsold rates made for only partially successful results.

Inaugurated by Sotheby’s Contemporary African art sale (the Jean Pigozzi collection) on 24 June 1999, the event drew a limited audience and the bidding was sluggish (none of the lots reached beyond £10,000).
Today auction houses regularly present sales around the theme of Contemporary African art: Bonhams with Africa now (10 March 2010), Phillips de Pury with Africa (15 May 2010), Gaïa with Afriques (31 May 2010), Artcurial with Africa scenes 1 (24 October 2010), Graham’s Fine Art Auctioneers …

Between January 2002 and January 2007, the prices of Contemporary African art rose sharply (+370% in 5 years) under the influence of an emerging markets boom and speculative buying, before contracting slightly (-25%) between January 2007 and January 2010. But the proliferation of sales devoted to African art in 2010 has triggered only a moderate trend reversal. The price index for African art has indeed gained 19.6% since January 2010, but the auction houses have recorded unusually high unsold rates. 60.4% at Bonhams, 38.7% at Phillips de Pury, 82.9% at Gaïa and 74.2% at Artcurial.

The Tops and the Flops…
For the most sought-after artists like Chéri SAMBA, Marlene DUMAS, William KENTRIDGE and Wangechi MUTU, these sales anticipated excellent results. In effect, Chéri Samba signed a new personal record at Phillips de Pury with J’aime la couleur which fetched $80,000; but his painting The used Condoms remained unsold against a $25,000 / 35,000 estimate. At Gaïa, Dans la tempête du désert, la prudence s’impose partout generated a good result when it fetched €26,000 against a pre-sale estimate of €18,000 – €22,000. But his Woman at the heart of man went unsold at Artcurial against a pre-sale estimate of €18,000 – €20,000. Since January 2010, 50% of the artist’s works have been bought in. The Zairian painter is much appreciated in France where roughly 66% of his auction sales take place.

The South Africans Marlène Dumas and William Kentridge received mixed reactions. Marlène Dumas’ drawing and collage World Cup SA 2010 failed to sell (vs. a low estimate of $35,000). Despite her 56 auction lots sold since January 2010, Marlène Dumas’ top price this year has not exceeded $900,000 (Stella (2000), Christie’s New York, 11 May 2010), well short of the £2,820,000 fetched by The visitor in 2008 at Sotheby’s in London.

2010 has also been a good year for William Kentridge whose new personal record – equivalent to €209,400 – was set on 5 October 2010 at Stephan Weltz & Co. in South Africa for a work Drawing for the Film Stereoscope. At Phillips, a drawing by the South African artist entitled Bicycle Kick failed to reach the anticipated result, selling for $45,000 against a low estimate of $50,000. At Artcurial, the Summer Graffiti print (a series of 8 prints) remained unsold. Artcurial was way too optimistic by giving a €23,000-28,000 estimate, knowing that this type of print sells on average between €1,500 and €2,500 the copy.
Unlike his compatriot (Dumas), 64% of William Kentridge’s auction sales occur in his country of origin against New-York and London (6% in the case of Marlène Dumas).

Wangechi Mutu was also on the auction podium this year at Phillips de Pury with her Untitled (2005) fetching £68,000 in London in June (her annual record) and at the Africa sale where her Howl changed hands below its low pre-sale estimate for $5,500.

Apart from their African origins, these artists have another factor in common: they are all, almost systematically, present in the major Contemporary art sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury alongside the likes of Peter DOIG, Damien HIRST, Anish KAPOOR… and they were all represented this year at the Paris FIAC.
Next year, African art collectors will have plenty of buying opportunities at the auction sales scheduled around the next Paris Photo fair (17 – 20 November 2011, From Bamako to Cape Town, a spotlight on African photography).