Lot 9 NELSON ROLIHLAHLA MANDELA (South African, 1918-2013) The Cell Door, Robben Island Sold for US$ 112,575 (£ 86,200) inc. premium MODERN & CONTEMPORARY AFRICAN ART 2 May 2019, 14:00 EDT NEW YORK
“The Cell Door, Robben Island” by Nelson Mandela

One of the first sketches made by Nelson Mandela (1918-2013), recalling the former South Africa president’s 27 years of imprisonment, was among the top-selling works at Bonhams’ relaunched African art auction in New York. “The Cell Door, Robben Island” (2002) was sold by Mandela’s daughter, Pumla Makaziwe Mandela, and went for its top estimate of $90,000 on May 2.

Overall, the sale of 39 lots made a total $1.1m, below its low estimate of $1.2m. There were some star turns — paintings by Nigeria’s Demas Nwoko, and the late Alexander Skunder Boghossian from Ethiopia, soared ahead of expectations — but 19 of the works didn’t sell. Giles Peppiatt, Bonhams director of Modern and contemporary African art, notes that there was less interest in the lower-estimated works and says, “We will learn from that and adjust accordingly”. He adds: “50 per cent of the buyers were based in the US, a clear indication that there’s a real appetite for contemporary African art in America. We’re back in New York next year, and I’m looking forward to it.”

The contrast between the coinciding art fairs Frieze New York and Tefaf New York Spring seemed sharper this year. Some previous Frieze exhibitors, including Pace Gallery and Skarstedt, have switched from the fair on Randall’s Island Park to the younger but more stately Tefaf fair, which has the distinct advantage of being on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Those galleries who stuck with Frieze did well, however — strong sales were reported from the likes of David Zwirner, 303 Gallery and Maureen Paley — and the rotating roster of galleries gave the fair a “refreshed” feel, according to exhibitor Toby Clarke of Vigo gallery, who also sold well.

Dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, one of 19 gallerists who showed at both events, says that they coexist comfortably. “Frieze is still an amazing show for contemporary art; that spirit of the ‘unsecured work’ has not gone. Tefaf is at the other end of the spectrum. Works have passed the test of time and the fair has incredible quality, touching more on the idea of luxury,” he says. He made sales at both venues, including, at Tefaf, a 1979-80 portrait by Georg Baselitz of his wife Elke in “Blauer Elkekopf”, and works by Robert Longo, Daniel Richter and Baselitz at Frieze. These included Longo’s charcoal “Untitled (Rose, November 22, 2017)”, which sold to a collection in California for $600,000.

Georg Baselitz Blauer Elkekopf 1979-1980 Oil on canvas 200 x 161.3 cm (78,74 x 63,5 in) (GB 2273) Copyright Georg Baselitz photo: Friedrich Rosenstiel, Cologne
Georg Baselitz of his wife Elke in “Blauer Elkekopf” © Georg Baselitz/Friedrich Rosenstiel, Cologne

Management of Frieze has been rumoured to be looking for a more central location in New York but a spokesperson says: “Randall’s Island is a great venue for the fair. We reassess year-to-year . . . At the moment we have no firm plans to move.”

Consolidation may be expected in the fragmented field of online art galleries, but it isn’t as easy as it sounds. At the end of last year, France’s Singulart announced the acquisition of NewBloodArt, a UK-based online gallery, but now both sides confirm that the deal is off. It wasn’t a huge transaction — understood to be worth about £500,000 — but its cancellation demonstrates the stumbling blocks for all small businesses in the art market.

“In theory, it makes perfect sense to combine resources, but you can’t scale up and automate overnight. Plus, often there are independent and incompatible agendas,” says Sarah Ryan, who founded New Blood Art in 2004.

Rather than dwell on the past, Ryan is looking ahead to the art school degree shows that start this month — about 80 per cent of the 150 artists on her site are recent graduates. Véra Kempf, co-founder of Singulart, is also putting her best foot forward and has taken a booth for eight of the gallery’s artists at this week’s Affordable Art Fair in London’s Hampstead (May 9-12). Singulart’s site currently sells works by about 2,600 artists, ranging from “emerging” to “acclaimed” and priced between £500 and £350,000.

In London, the contemporary Chinese art specialist Hadrien de Montferrand has had a sellout show of works by Lu Chao (b1988), a graduate of Beijing’s influential Central Academy of Fine Arts, who now lives in London. A few of the 13 works on view have sold to Chinese buyers, but Montferrand reports that collectors from Switzerland, Belgium, the UK and Australia have also picked up Lu’s work. Price points are relatively attractive for contemporary art — the smaller pieces are £9,000; large works are £36,000 — but Lu’s commitment to his Chinese roots also plays a part, including a monochrome palette that references ink painting. And Lu’s themes, including overpopulation and the loss of individuality, also have wider resonance. Black Dots runs at HdM gallery until Saturday.

The cross-category Masterpiece art fair has scored a hit for its entrance this year with a work by Phyllida Barlow, whose solo show is at London’s Royal Academy of Arts until June 23. The sculptor, who represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2017, will recreate one of her supersized pom-pom installations, comprising about 20 balls of different lengths in a purpose-built timber structure. Groups of the works will be offered for £80,000-£175,000 through Hauser & Wirth.

“The colours are wonderful, but these works are more challenging than they may seem,” says Masterpiece chairman Philip Hewat-Jaboor. “They carry a sense of decay and of melancholy, and make me think about the brevity of life.” Masterpiece’s 10th edition runs from June 27 to July 3.

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