Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor has made the West aware that African art is worth exploring. Picture: THE TIMES
THE first Africa Art Market Report, published in December, speaks of growing demand and skyrocketing prices, as local and international buyers discover its attractions.
Prices have more than doubled in the past four years, and South African artists are often the vanguard.
The highest price paid for a contemporary African artist’s work was the $1,445,000 for Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s Paths to the Okro Farm, in New York in 2014, but Emma Bedford, senior art specialist at South African auctioneers Strauss & Co, points out that William Kentridge’s Procession sold for $1,538,500 in 2013. It is a set of 25 sculptures that some argue is one work.
But the continent’s art market remains “niche”. The 2014 modern and contemporary African art market was estimated at $31.2m, completely overshadowed by the global market, which that year reached a high of $68.2bn. Last year, total global sales revenue dropped 7% to $63.8bn, according to the European Fine Art Fair’s Art Market Report 2016.
Art market website Artnet reported earlier this year that the global art market shrank 6% between 2014 and this year, with the biggest declines in the UK and Asian markets — but the US market bucked the trend, hitting its highest note yet last year, with a 4% rise to $27.3bn.
“While the South African share of the market may have reduced a little, this has been more than compensated with the increase in the market for contemporary African art from the other sub-Saharan countries,” says Bonhams director of modern and contemporary African art, George Peppiatt.
The most expensive African painting sold at auction was Arab Priest by Irma Stern, says Hannah O’Leary, head of South African art at Bonhams. It was bought by a museum in the Middle East for £3.1m in March 2011. In second place is Bahora Girl by Stern, sold to a private South African collector for £2.4m in October 2010.
Experts say the market for African art is well-established, and could continue its rise up the ranks of pricey objects worth coveting. But the global art world is notoriously fickle.
“The rise in values has been significant, but I do not think it has been frenzied,” Peppiatt says. “I would not welcome speculative interest in the market; most of the current buyers are long-term collectors and institutions. So, no, it is not a bubble.”