African art: The big alternative investment?

Sold for £92,500. Princes of Mali – BENEDICT CHUKWUKADIBIA ENWONWU M.B.E Photo: Bonhams

African art could be the next big asset among alternative investors, as auction values surge.

African art is a notably younger market than the traditional art put under the hammer. As the familiar Picassos and portraits increasingly fetch record amounts, though, the art world’s investors are gradually looking to alternative alternatives with strong growth prospects.

For auction house Bonhams, the sector first caught attention in 2007, when they included pieces by Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu in a lot of paintings, only for one to sell for over $30,000.

“There has been an explosion of interest in modern and contemporary art from Africa, and Bonhams ‘Africa Now’ auction remains at the forefront of the market as the only sale of its kind globally,” said the auction house, after its event in May 2015.

Hannah O’Leary, Bonhams Head of Contemporary African Art comments: “Since our inaugural Africa Now auction just five years ago, this market has gone from strength to strength. While artists from at least fifteen African countries were represented, the top prices were reserved for the best pieces by the Nigerian Masters, which seems appropriate for a country celebrating their centenary and that recently became Africa’s largest economy.”

One of the world records set at the Africa Now action was for Yusuf Adebayo Cameron Grillo (Nigerian, born 1934), whose 1972 painting ‘The Flight’, lot 42, sold for £62,500. This record was broken a second time just minutes later when lot 52, ‘Woman with Gele’, sold for £80,500 against a pre-sale estimate of £30,000 to £50,000.

Indeed, with technology making it easier for artists, galleries and investors to connect with each other, the previously overlooked area is entering the spotlight.

Prices remain modest, with sales at the auction house since 2013 totally around 1.6 million pounds, but average lot values have multiplied five times from $10,000 to $50,000 in the past eight years.

Maria Varnava, director of London’s Tiwani Contemporary gallery, tells Bloomberg that the industry’s size means that it is a “cutthroat” market.

“You’re targeting a very small market, so you’re all basically fighting for the same collector base,” she says. “So that makes you ruthless.”