The auction is a marketplace like any other but one uncelebrated aspect of such sales is the single opportunity to see rare works and masterpieces – some not seen for decades – all in the space of two hours.
Held on March 20, the total lot of 135 works that include paintings, sculptures and water colours were assembled into 6 categories namely: South Africa, Ghana & Nigeria, Central Africa, Mali & Cote D’Ivoire & Benin, East Africa and “Creative Currents of the Nile” which was specially curated by Roubi L’ Roubi, a Sudanese fashion designer and curator whose last show “Forests and Spirits: Figurative Art From The Khartoum School” was held last year at Saatchi Gallery (UK).
Bonhams has long had success with its “South African Sale” and before the recent swell of interest in West African artists best signified by the £1.2 million (Est £200-300) Ben Enwowu’s Tutu realized at auction in February 2018.
To address the insufficient attention paid to master works by specific East African artists, the auction house, along with curator L’ Roubi, conceived of “Creative Currents of the Nile”. Most notable is Ibrahim El Salahi, Sudan’s most celebrated living artist, also Salah El Mur, Alexander Boghossian, Hussein Shariffe, Mohamed Abbaro, Siddig El Nigoumi and others deserving of great acclaim and high prices. The approach Bonhams is one Roubi hails as “Visionary for bringing in East Africa.”
Hyperbole aside, the Bonhams auction has no doubt introduced buyers to some of El Salahi’s works. His ink and whitewash titled Standing Figure (acquired in Nigeria, circa 1960) had a modest estimate of £15 000 – 20 00 but went on to sell for more than double the figure at £50.036. Only two other works in the top ten best sellers sold for twice its projected figure namely Le Debut De Cheri Samba by Congo’s Cheri Samba and Ladies Of The Harem, Zanzibar by South Africa’s Irman Stern.
Enwowu’s elegant bronze sculpture of an Igbo goddess Anyanwu sold for £187.563 (Est $100 – 150 000) while the supple and graceful painting of a woman wearing a headscarf titled Negritude was the second bestselling work at $137.563 (Est £40 – 60).
Enwowu’s The Fruit Seller was the fourth best at $125.063 (Est £100 – 150). Interest in his work has never been higher and is understandably driving the prices of his lesser works, some of which start at just over £5000.
The strong performance by the artist did not come as a surprise, not least to Giles Peppiatt, Head of African Modern and Contemporary Art at Bonhams who believes the value of Enwowu’s works will only keep rising: “I mean you have to look at what they were fetching 10 years ago, you could have bought an Enyawu for as little as £2000”.
The second strongest sale was of works by Gerard Sekoto who Peppiatt regards as “probably the most important Black South African artist”.
Sekoto’s Washer Woman (circa 1940), a depiction of two women in tranquil domesticity sold at £125 063 (Est $100-150 000) while another oil painting, The Water Collectors (1945-47), also by the artist was bought for £87.567 (Est £50 – 80 000).
As auctioneer, Peppiatt has been instrumental in positioning Bonhams as a leader in the sale of contemporary African art in the UK since he organised the auction houses’ first sale in 2009. He describes the current state of the market as “extremely fair and very strong” and has high hopes for the first New York edition in May: “I fully expect that to perform well. For the moment I think things are looking very rosy.”
Established in 1793, Bonhams is among the world’s largest auctioneers but L’ Roubi believes the success of its auctions of African art is not the result of marketing expertise, as many of the featured artists are also included in other contemporary sales.
The main reason, he goes on to add, is that the “clarity and rawness in the communication in the contemporary work from the continent is connecting with people especially now with the global challenges we have everywhere, people just go back to this really human messages”.
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