Special Report:

Culture: Trend for African art drives surge in sales and prices

El Anatsui's 'New World Map' fetched a record £540,000

When Arthouse, the Lagos gallery and auctioneer, held its first sale in 2008, Kavita Chellaram, the managing director, had a simple goal.

A long-time collector of Nigerian modern and contemporary art – the walls at her Lagos home hang heavy with works by some of the lions – she was eager to establish a market.

“There was no transparency of price,” she says of the days before that first auction, which saw a painting by Bruce Onobrakpeya, one of Nigeria’s famed “Zaria rebels”, fetch more than $80,000.

Just four years on, the market Mrs Chellaram helped establish is booming and prices are soaring for the best works by Nigerian contemporary artists, the finest of which are now celebrated around the world.

In May, Bonhams, the London auction house, achieved a world record price for El Anatsui, the Ghanaian-born artist, when it sold his “New World Map”, a vast tapestry made out of flattened aluminium bottle caps and copper wire, for more than £540,000.

The price in part reflected the rise of Mr Anatsui, who since 1975 has lived and worked in Nigeria and heads the sculpture department at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka in the southeast of the country.

Now in his late 60s and one of Africa’s most celebrated contemporary artists, he has seen a surge in popularity (and prices) since he began making his monumental tapestries out of bottle caps in 1999.

One of those works wowed visitors to the 2007 Venice Biennale and his name features in the collections of the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian.

But beneath that headline-grabbing success was a bigger trend. African contemporary art is hot and none is hotter than that coming out of Nigeria these days.

When five years ago Bonhams ran its first “Africa Now” auction it had to assemble a list of potential buyers from scratch, says Giles Peppiatt, the auctioneer’s director of contemporary African art.

“The first two sales were – to use the euphemism – quite challenging,” he says.

This year, however, Bonhams sent out more than 3,500 copies of the catalogue for the sale to a clientele that included serious collectors in the UK, continental Europe and Africa, and private buyers and institutions in the US.

The growing interest has driven up prices and made stars out of some artists such as Mr Anatsui. But much of what is offered for sale remains affordable by international standards.

The May sale at Bonhams included many works by celebrated Nigerian artists, such as Mr Onobrakpeya, with estimates of less than £2,000.

Prices rose substantially for better works by Mr Onobrakpeya and other Zaria Art Society “rebels” such as Yusuf Grillo.

Many of the works offered in a November 26 sale at Arthouse in Lagos carried estimates of less than $10,000.

The cover image for the catalogue, a minimalist black graphite depiction of an “Adorable Maiden” with a teary vivid yellow pastel eye by Victor Ekpuk, was expected to sell for up to $7,500.

Even large canvases such as “Talking”, a vivid blue oil and acrylic painting depicting two ethereal heads facing each other by contemporary artist Chidi Kwubiri was offered with the expectation that it would draw bids up to $12,500.

All of which leads experts such as Mr Peppiatt to argue that the market for Nigerian art is a long, long way from bubble territory.

Prices, he says, have not seen “one of those lunatic rises that you see in some markets where you know it is going to collapse at some point”.

Part of the reason is that a growing affluent class of Nigerians is becoming interested in art and starting to constitute a significant presence at auctions, whether they are held in London or Lagos.

“We keep getting new Nigerians coming in,” says Mrs Chellaram. “They’ve got their cars. They’ve built their houses. Now they want to fill their walls.”

Accompanying that is a growing consciousness in Nigeria about the value of art and the need to nurture young artists.

Arthouse, for example, is establishing a foundation to help fund the best young contemporary artists emerging from Nigeria’s art schools and Mrs Chellaram speaks of setting up a centre in Lagos that will draw international artists for residencies.

“We have young contemporary artists who are doing abstract and figurative art that can compete around the world,” she says.

But, she adds: “We’re just at the tip of the iceberg in [terms of] tapping into people.”

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