Who’s Making The Big Bucks? African Art Auctions Bank On Modern Art Pioneers

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Written by Tayo Fagbule

An auction for artworks from Africa is incomplete without works by the pioneers.

Arthouse in Lagos — Nigeria’s top art auctioneer — and Bonhams, one of the world’s oldest and largest fine art auctioneers, are banking on Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu to draw collectors to their respective auctions in May — a busy month for auctions worldwide.

Apart from Enwonwu, who is undoubtedly the lodestone at auctions for modern and contemporary works from West Africa, there other early modernists as well as established contemporary artists from the region.

In its continued attempt to distinguish post-war modern from contemporary African art, Bonhams has lined up for sale at its “Africa Now: Modern Africa” auction pieces by the pioneers of Nigerian modernism — Yusuf Grillo and Uzo Egonu, as well as a rare oil on canvas by Demas Nwoko.

Ben Enwonwu

Ben Enwonwu. Photo: fascinatingnigeriamagazine.com
Ben Enwonwu. Photo: fascinatingnigeriamagazine.com

Enwonwu (1917-1994), one of Africa’s eminent modernists, is the bellwether of auctions for modern and contemporary art from Africa.

In May 2015, Arthouse  generated $160,050 from sales of Enwonwu’s work. This was 44 percent more than in May 2014.

Bonhams generated $671,186 from sales of Enwonwu’s work during the same period. Most of Enwonwu’s works have been sold publicly at Bonhams.

Enwonwu studied at Goldsmiths, University of London, and London’s Slade School of Art, and worked and exhibited in London. Twenty-two of his pieces will be auctioned at Bonhams on May 29.

Ben Enwonwu - African dance ensemble
“African dance ensemble” by Ben Enwonwu. Photo: Arthouse Contemporary, Lagos

The Arthouse auction on May 9 will feature Enwonwu’s “African Dance Ensemble 1960.” Based on pre-sale low and high estimates of $35,000 and $50,000, this piece set a record as the highest estimate for a watercolor on paper by any African artist at auction in Lagos or Bonhams.

Paintings from the African dances series, no matter the genre, are among top-selling artworks at auction. A couple of watercolors have gone under the hammer for five digits at Arthouse and Bonhams. Enwonwu’s representational paintings of dancers and of Ogolo, a masked dancer from his hometown, are highly sought after.

The star lot for the evening sale at Arthouse, however, is Enwonwu’s “Obitan Dancers 1990,” which is expected to fetch between $90,000 and $100,000.

In London, Enwonwu’s “Spirit of Ogolo 1988” is valued between $140,000 and $210,000 — a record for an Enwonwu and on a par with with El Anatsui’s “Marks Left Behind I, II & III.”

Anatsui, a Ghanaian, has lived and worked most of his career in Nigeria. His iconic bottle-top installations have attracted international attention.

There will be no Enwonwu works at the April 29 auction of Terra Kulture-Mydrim Gallery (TKMG) but the auction house holds the record for the most expensive work on paper by Enwonwu; an untitled ink on paper he made in 1980 went under the hammer for $99,000 in 2011.

Demas Nwoko

Demas Nwoko (1)
Demas Nwoko. Photo: Anthony Nsofor/chikaokeke-agulu.blogspot.com

The first work by Nwoko to be auctioned was “The Wiseman,” a wood sculpture. It went for $66,000 at the November 2010 Arthouse auction —  the fourth most expensive work that year. This year two works by Nwoko — “Adam and Eve, 1962” and “Senegalese Woman, 1965” will be on sale at Bonhams and Arthouse respectively.

Demas Nwoko - Adam and Eve
“Adam and Eve” by Demas Nwoko. Photo: Bonhams

Yusuf Grillo

Works by Yusuf Grillo, who together with Nwoko pioneered a modern Nigerian aesthetic as members of Zaria Art Society in the 1960s, seldom appear at auction too. When they do it’s at Bonhams. Their provenance explains why. For instance, two of the six Grillos due for sale in London are from the private collection of Lady Dorothea Louise, Viscountess Head, wife of Antony Henry Head who was High Commissioner to Nigeria from 1960 to 1963. The lone Grillo on sale at Arthouse, with a pre-sale estimate between $75,000 and $85,000, was among those exhibited at a retrospective held in Lagos in October.

In May 2015 at Bonhams, “African Woman with Gele, 1975” was bought for $120,854, setting the record as the most expensive Grillo at auction. In Lagos, the record sale for a work by the octogenarian (Grillo was born in 1934) is “Blue Moon, 1966.” It was hammered for $73,333 at Arthouse in November 2008.

Tayo Fagbule is a freelance journalist and co-author of The Nigeria Art Market Report 2015.