Friday, March 12, 2010

African art fails to quicken pulses in New York


There's nothing an auctioneer hates more than presiding over a room full of bidders who aren't bidding. This is a relatively rare occurrence during a bull market, but since the recession kicked in the job of the up-market fine art auctioneer has often been reduced to that of a well-dressed dentist pulling teeth.

This was made dramatically clear in the recent BBC 4 documentary, 'The Man with the Golden Gavel' — a profile of Phillips de Pury & Co's chief auctioneer Simon de Pury.

The documentary began with Monsieur de Pury swaggering through the champagne-soaked boom years during which his rostrum manner approached a kind of performance art as he worked up a heroic sweat, coaxing millions of extra dollars from super-rich bidders hooked on the crystal meth of contemporary art. Those were the days when an auctioneer like de Pury could swing from the chandeliers, working the room like Tarzan.

Then the shit hit the fan and in a matter of just a few months Simon and his ilk found themselves staring at a room full of sphinxes sitting on their hands. The rostrum braggadocio was suddenly replaced by a sheepish reticence as lot after lot was passed over unsold.

Quite how long this recessionary state of affairs will last is anyone's guess. All the signs are that we're likely to be stuck with it for a considerable time yet. Meanwhile, auctioneers press on regardless, testing new markets, one of the most stubbornly unresponsive of which is the market for African Modern and Contemporary art.

Bonhams have pioneered this field in recent years, their London salerooms persevering with Stanley-like determination despite the hostile economic environment (see my report on their April 2009 London sale here).

They say that if you throw enough mud at a wall, eventually some it will stick. But this African mud is not like other mud. It just keeps sliding down the wall.

Bonhams had the bright idea of staging their most recent African sale in New York. Perhaps they were thinking the combination of New York money, investors' hunger for The Next Big Thing, and a roots-aware African-American contingent might together provide the thermals this market so badly needs. It didn't work.

The sale at Bonhams' Madison Avenue rooms on March 10 comprised 137 lots, just 56 of which found buyers. Of these, two thirds were hammered down below the low estimate. That's the sound of mud sliding off the wall.

In the event, the sale relied for its highpoints on a number of significant examples of the work of the late Nigerian artist Ben (Benedict Chukwukadibia) Enwonwu (1917-1994), suddenly the most sought-after African painter of his generation.

Enwonwu is the subject of a major new monograph by the African art historian Sylvester Okwonudu Ogbechie (Ben Enwonwu: The Making of an African Modernist), the publication of which seems to have coincided with an upswing in Enwonwu's stock at auction. If you believe the investment analysts, monographs tend to improve an artist's "equity story".

Bonhams' last sale in London saw the seminal work in acrylic and watercolour on card, Negritude, establish a new auction record for Enwonwu at £66,000 ($94,596), including premium.

That price seems to have brought a number of other Enwonwu works out of the woodwork, including a similar dance-themed oil on board entitled Africa Dances (Eve Noir) (shown above left) which brought one of the highest prices of the New York sale at $73,200 (£48,325), including premium. Although not directly referencing the eponymous Francophone cultural movement that lent additional lustre to the London painting, the iconography was consistent with that picture and clearly placed it in a similar category of appeal.

Later in the sale, another Enwonwu oil, Fishermen, sold within estimate at $67,100 (£44,296), and shortly after that, Dancing Boys (right), depicting young men moving with Dionysian abandon through a swirling mist of colour, reinforced the buoyant market for Enwonwu's work when it beat an estimate of $80,000-120,000 to fetch $91,500 (61,064), including premium.

The auction record for Enwonwu remains the $94,596 (£66,000) for Negritude, but the fact that the next four highest prices for the artist at auction were all achieved on Wednesday in New York can be taken as a fair indication of his current standing among collectors. Is someone busy assembling the definitive Ben Enwonwu collection? A Nigerian museum, perhaps?

Without these very positive contributions to the total, the results sheet would have looked a lot more anaemic than it did. Once again a fine wall-based sculpture by the talented young Nigerian-born American sculptor Nnenna Okore (born 1975) failed to get away at an estimate of $35,000-45,000, but a work by her former teacher, the Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui (born 1944), entitled Sculpture I, constructed from camel thorn wood and steel clamps, fetched $27,450, including buyer's premium.

Finally, it was interesting to note that a series of works by the South African artist known as "Beezy" (William James Sebastian) Bailey (born 1962), all deaccessioned by the Ojai Valley Museum in California, were allowed to go at prices very significantly under their estimates ($1000 against a forecast of $7,000, for example). Clearly Bonhams were at fault with their estimates, but why was the Ojai Museum prepared to virtually give these away?

I've emailed the museum for the full story on how they were acquired and why they were deaccessioned and await their response.

It seems clear that African modern art has a long way to go before it becomes the art market's next China, as Bonhams have been predicting. Will things improve as we move out of recession, or is African modernism simply failing to beat a drum with collectors?

For the moment at least, it seems that not even a "swaggering saleroom superstar" like Simon de Pury could lift this market out of the doldrums.