Sotheby’s Takes on Bonhams for Works By Contemporary African Artists

El Anatsui, Earth Developing More Roots, 2011. Aluminium bottle caps and copper wire 320 by 338cm. Image: Sotheby’s

Earth Developing More Roots, a sculpture made from Aluminium bottle caps and copper wire by El Anatsui, is one of the works by contemporary African artists to be auctioned by Sotheby’s in London


Sotheby’s Takes on Bonhams for the sale of artworks by  Modern and Contemporary African Artists.


LONDON: The line is drawn and Sotheby’s is set to take on Bonhams for the sale of Modern and Contemporary African Art. The venue is Sotheby’s London and the date is May 16, 2017.

In its first dedicated Sale of Modern and Contemporary African Art, Sotheby’s will put on auction works by 60 different contemporary African artists from 14 countries across the African continent. Countries that will be represented at the auction include Algeria (North Africa), Benin, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal (West Africa), Ethiopia and Uganda (East Africa), Cameroon and Democratic Republic of Congo (Central Africa), Angola, South Africa and Zimbabwe (Southern Africa).

The auction will include a variety of objects, media, and styles, including Modernist painting, drawing, photography, ceramic sculpture and found objects by established and emerging contemporary African artists. A major highlight of the Sotheby’s inaugural auction of Modern and Contemporary African Art is El Anatsui’s Earth Developing More Roots, 2011. Made from aluminum bottle caps and copper wire, the piece is estimated at £650,000-850,000 / US$ 810,000- 1.06 million.

Ben Enwonwu, Ogolo 1987. Gouache, pen and ink on cardboard, 74 by 53.5 cm. Image: Sotheby’s

The auction will also include Ogolo, a 1987 gouache, pen and ink on cardboard painting by Ben Enwonwu. Estimated at £60,000-80,000/US$62,500- 99,500, the painting is expected to make auction record price by surpassing all estimates. Other artists whose works are expected to feature prominently during the Sotheby’s inaugural auction include Meschac Gaba, Nicholas Hlobo, Ablade Glover, William Kentridge and many others.

Sotheby’s  Incursion into the Auction of Modern and Contemporary African Art

Sotheby’s recent incursion into the auction of Modern and Contemporary African Art was informed by the increasing demand for works by contemporary African artists in the global market. Although Sotheby’s has been auctioning works by individual contemporary African artists for years, this is the first time the auction house is taking up a large collection of artworks by African artists in an auction. Hannah O’Leary, Sotheby’s Head of Modern and Contemporary African Art notes:

In recent years, I’ve seen an exponential increase in market demand from collectors in Africa and the African diaspora, as well as international art collectors and influencers who are embracing art from Africa as exciting, innovative and relevant. Sotheby’s entry to the market is in direct response to its current strength and its even greater potential over the coming years.

Certainly, Modern and Contemporary African Art is making a great impact in the global art space. In addition to Bonhams Auction House that has been putting works by  African artists in front of collectors across the globe, the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair is also bringing recognition to contemporary African artists who have resided in the periphery for years.

In addition to auctions, important museums across the globe are bringing attention to the works  Modern and Contemporary African Artists through art exhibitions and talks. Early this week, the French luxury goods billionaire Bernard Arnault opened a three-part exhibition devoted to African art at Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. An important and highly anticipated exhibition will open at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Mocaa) Cape Town in September.  Without a doubt, Africa is on the roll.

In spite of the successes recorded in the global art market by modern and contemporary African artists, “there’s still a considerable way to go towards addressing the underrepresentation of African artists, who account for just 0.01% of the international art market,” notes Hannah O’Leary.

One way Sotheby’s is trying to address the underrepresentation of contemporary African artists in the global art market is to spread its African Art auction across the globe. Pre-sale exhibitions will be held in Paris, Johannesburg, Cape Town, New York and then London.

The other is to include contemporary African artists whose works have never appeared at auction or have not had their due. Congolese painter Eddy Ilunga Kamuanga, Zimbabwean artist Virginia Chihota, Léonce Raphael Agbodjelou, Dawit Abebe and Boris Nzebo are some of the artists in this category. Their works will be presented alongside well -established modern and contemporary artists whose works have realized over $1 million.

For Sotheby’s, this inaugural sale of Modern and Contemporary African Art is a chance to create a balance in the global art market regarding the pricing of works by African artists.  “This is our opportunity to redress some of the current price anomalies; to identify those artists who we think currently undersell but have huge potential,” said Hannah O’Leary.

There is a high expectation for the first Sotheby’s Sale of Modern and Contemporary African Art. The auction is expected to bring more than £2.8m, which is far more than the recorded £1.6m hammer record set by Bonhams a year ago. Above all, O’Leary hopes “that the auction and our international exhibitions will provide a fresh platform for these artists, attracting the interest of new collectors and enthusiasts who have not yet explored this field.”

The Hannah O’Leary Factor

In preparation for the new focus on Modern and contemporary African art, Sotheby’s in 2016 hired Hannah O’Leary.  O’Leary was the head of Bonhams Modern and contemporary African art department, a position she held for six years. In March 2011, she organized the sale of South African art. The auction fetched £8.7m, a result that got the attention of many auction houses including Sotheby’s.   The auction record achieved by the South African art sale continues to stand the test of time.

The pioneering role of Hannah O’Leary in the auction of Modern and contemporary African art was not lost on Sotheby’s. She was instrumental to early sale of African art at Bonhams that started in 2008.  The demand for African has continued to grow since then.

With the increased demand for artworks by African artists in the global art market, Sotheby’s is determined to take a bite of the cake. Sotheby’s is also determined to usurp the space occupied by Bonhams for many years now. Maarten Ten Holder, the managing director of Sotheby’s Europe spoke plainly about the intention of the auction house: “As our sales develop in 2017, we anticipate that we will establish a significant profile in this field, while also looking to enhance our presence on the African continent.”

In preparation for this auction, O’Leary traveled across Africa holding appraisals. In addition to the May auction, there are indications that another auction of Modern and contemporary African art will be held in October.

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