2018 State of the African Art Market

Voice of the Collector

January 05, 2018 By: Adenike Cosgrove

Record number of exhibitors of traditional African art at Tefaf“, “Africa rising“, “Africa’s art scene is set to take Asia’s place in the spotlight“,”African art is so hot right now“. These headlines point to a booming African art market, one that’s attracting new types of collectors and shows no sign of abating.

However with growing demand comes increased prices. Talk to some dealers and we hear about a market in flux. One where prices are unsustainably increasing, a market struggling to find new collectors, and one where mid-market collectors are being squeezed out.

We’ve heard from dealers and the press but what do collectors think? To ascertain this and more, ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA conducted an online survey of 124 international collectors to explore:

  • Who today’s collectors of African art are;
  • What they are buying and;
  • How they think the market will evolve over the next few years.

Let’s break down some of the opacity in the market to reveal who’s buying what and why.

"The beauty and refinement of African sculpture, the depth of the sub-Saharan sculptural tradition, and the fact that good quality African material remains pretty accessible to someone with a middle-class budget."

—Why did you start collecting?

Who’s Collecting African Art?

Gender and Age in the African Art Market

Photographs courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

85 percent of the surveyed collectors were male, and almost two thirds aged 55 or over. Only 15 percent of collectors surveyed were women. Even though the majority of African art collectors today are men, we are seeing a shift in the market. Women were more likely than men to state that they collect adornment, textiles, and jewellery. As dealers and auction houses diversity the art on offer—moving beyond ‘just’ masks, figures, and ceremonially used objects—we expect to see more women move into this collecting field. In addition, contemporary African art is also proving attractive to female collectors.

African art collectors younger than 35 account for just 4 percent of respondents. This might seem low, but it does correlate with numbers in the overall art market—according to the 2014 AXA International Collectors Survey, “art-lovers under 29 make up only 3 percent of the collectors surveyed“.

While only 3 percent of surveyed collectors are aged between 26-34, just over a third of respondents are aged between 35-54 dispelling the myth that African art is an ‘old boys’ club’.

How would you describe yourself?
(Please select one)

What Are They Collecting?

Definitions are everything. What is classic African art? How is it different from ‘traditional’ or ‘historical’ art? Do current art history terms apply to African art and can we really lump art made from peoples in over 50 countries into ‘African art’?

Before we can discuss market assumptions and ultimately attract more collectors to African art, we have to ensure that we are all speaking the same language. For the purpose of the survey, we used the following definitions and asked collectors to select all categories of African art that they currently collect:

  • Classic African Art: Artworks produced by African artists during and before the 18th century.
  • Modern African Art: Artworks produced by African artists during the period between the 1860s to the 1970s.
  • Contemporary African Art: Artworks made today; art produced by African artists during and after the late 20th century.

Our definitions left much to be desired. Many collectors were confused about what to call the artworks they collect with many agreeing that ‘modern African art’ just doesn’t cut it for pieces that were traditionally used—even if created in recent years. Confusion persists in the market about the various terms and groupings in African art and there remains a lack of consensus about what constitutes ‘African art’.

"The Beginning of Wisdom is the Definition of Terms." ― Socrates

What categories of African art do you have in your collection today?
(Please select all that apply)
Photographs courtesy of The British Museum, Sotheby's, TAFETA

“I am a little confused by the category “classic African art” as defined here. If it’s objects made before the 18th century, as it says at the beginning of the survey, the term would seem to apply almost exclusively to archaeological material, which I don’t collect for moral reasons… In the last set of questions, however, the term “classic African art” seems to be used to refer to the whole category of objects that might be called “historical” African art. With a few very rare exceptions, the overwhelming majority of that material dates from the 19th and 20th centuries.”

Despite confusion in definitions, what’s clear from the survey is that collectors overwhelmingly favour older art. 69 percent of collectors stated that they currently collect classic African art, 52 percent collect modern African art, and 21 percent currently collect contemporary African art.

Older African art is expected to maintain its appeal with over a third of collectors forecasting that their spend on classic African art will increase by over 5% in the next two years. This may be due to the fact that older works of art are more likely to see higher returns than newer pieces from less established artists, something collectors pay close attention to—30 percent state that they only buy art with prospective value increases.

Contemporary African Art Becoming Darling of Industry

How do you expect your spending on African art will change in the next two years?
(Please select one for each column)

But the market is in flux. Those that historically looked at only ‘classic’ pieces of art are now expanding their collections to include contemporary works of art—art made today.

Despite the majority of collectors stating that their existing collections largely consist of older works of art, 18 percent of collectors plan to increase their spend on contemporary works by between 5% to 25%, and nine percent by more than 25% over the next two years. In addition, 15 percent of respondents plan to pivot their buying to contemporary African art and 38 percent believe that contemporary African art is a good investment.

Collectors under 55 are more likely to state that they currently collect contemporary African art (35 percent of collectors under 55 versus 12 percent of those 55 and over). With the launch of new art fairs (think 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair) and new exhibition spaces and museums (think Zeitz MoCAA), awareness will undoubtedly rise, spurring further demand for contemporary African art.

How Do Collectors Purchase?

How often do you purchase African art?
(Please select one)

The majority of collectors, just over half, purchase African art a few times a year. We often hear that there is no mid-market in African art and that the ‘good old days’ of affordable African art are gone. However our data shows that most collectors spend $10,000 or less on art—57 percent of respondents. Only 17 percent of respondents spend more than $50,000 per annum on African art.

Older collectors are much more likely to spend between $50,000 to $99,999 on African art (20 percent of collectors 65 and over compared to just 3 percent of collectors aged between 35-54). Only 6 percent spend $100,000 or more on African art.

How much do you spend per annum on African art?
(Please select one)

Younger collectors purchase African art much more frequently than their older peers. 20 percent of collectors aged between 35-54 purchase African artworks a few times a month compared with just 7 percent of collectors aged 65 and over. This points to mature collectors slowing down their purchasing or rather shifting to masterpieces or ‘trophies’—with African art, experience proves that it may be wise to buy the best at the top of your budget.

How important are the following ways of discovering African art?
(Please select one for each row)
Percentages show 'Critically important' and 'Very important'
How do you purchase African art today?
(Please select all that apply)

Before acquiring, collectors must get informed. A whopping 95 percent of collectors surveyed state that they spend a lot of time educating themselves about African art. And how do they educate themselves? Primarily by visiting museums and art fairs. Four out of every five collectors surveyed find museums ‘critically important’ or ‘very important’ to discovering African art.

Critics, academics, and peers matter too. 69 percent of respondents turn to print media and books for research. Two thirds talk to other collectors to seek information on African art which in turn leads to private transactions and art purchases from collectors for 58 percent of respondents. Interestingly, when discovering art, collectors rely the least on art advisors and artists (35% and 23% respectively), and only 15 percent use the services of an art consultant to buy African art. But just over half will seek recommendations from third parties (advisors, dealers or curators) before making a purchase.

Which of the following do you view as important services?
(Please select all that apply)
Top ten services selected

Now, while art fairs are critical as a key source for discovery—70 percent view art fairs as critical or very important ways of discovering African art—only 43 percent of collectors actually buy at art fairs. The overwhelming majority of collectors, 75 percent, still prefer to buy directly from galleries and dealers. Unsurprising as 57 percent of collectors view reliability and trust as important services. In addition, expertise (53%) and reputation (47%) are valued by African art collectors—all important qualities in a dealer.

A further service, not included in our list of options but mentioned by a number of collectors in the ‘Other’ category is the return policy.

Online Purchasing Set to Grow

Would you buy African art online?
(Please select one)

"I would buy African art online if there's feedback about the seller's previous transactions and if there's a return policy. Pictures should not trick you and should represent the object as close to reality as possible."

—Would you buy African art online?

Online buying has arrived. ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA’s collectors survey reveals that 79 percent of collectors would buy African art online. 62 percent currently purchase African art from auction sales online and 34 percent from online marketplaces. Online purchases are most popular for artworks at lower price points—just over half of collectors that buy art from online auctions have an annual budget of $10,000 or less for African art.

Online auctions and marketplaces are expanding the reach of African art, enticing new buyers and introducing a greater number of collectors to emerging artists. Via digital channels, collectors have choice. With the promise of price visibility, they can more easily compare and be sure that they are getting the best price for a given piece of artwork and hopefully, the best quality piece within their price range.

"I would buy African art online. I live in the US and the best pieces are in Europe. I travel often for work but do not always have the opportunity to visit galleries and physically examine works."

—Would you buy African art online?

Caveat Emptor—Fear of Fakes

Photographs courtesy of Sotheby's and B.Z. Berlin

However not all collectors are convinced especially as it pertains to classic or historical African art. 18 percent of survey respondents state that they’d never buy African art online (and 3 percent ‘Don’t know’). This, compounded with the fact that 34 percent of collector completely agree that pricing in the African art market is too opaque and confusing means that online sales of African art has some ways to go in alleviating the fears of some collectors.

Many collectors struggle with ‘trust’. Concerns about transparency and authenticity are limiting online purchases of artworks at the upper end of the market. Additional controls are required. Solutions that support authentication, provenance, and increased visibility will encourage more collectors to leverage digital channels for purchase.

"Buying online remains very much a ‘caveat emptor’ situation. There are several reputable dealers with good websites, but at this point there are also a number of more or less dodgy dealers with good websites—including many who sell recent, high-quality fakes from runners (objects that ‘look good’ to the untrained eye but are worthless to collectors) and some who have no scruples about photographing objects to hide their flaws and fabricating credible-sounding provenances for pieces that are out and out forgeries. So it's important to have a good measure of background knowledge before diving in. This is even more true if you buy things at auction."

—Why would you or wouldn't you buy African art online?

Conclusions: What Say You?

Collectors seem to agree with dealers about one thing, prices are ever more increasing and the perception is that the mid-market is getting squeezed out of the historical African art market.

Some blame the auction houses stating that “auction prices are seemingly way too high for a lot of the material that is being offered when compared to similar pieces from dealers“, others blame the amount of fakes in circulation highlighting that “it’s much more difficult to find authentic African art at a reasonable price than it was years ago… fakes abound!“, and a further observation is that “the emphasis on provenance has encouraged dishonesty and deterred beginners from buying“.

However optimism remains. “Opportunities abound for those with knowledge“. As with anything, information is king and those that spend the time to educate themselves can become successful collectors of African art—and have fun at the same time!

"I believe that the opacity of the African art market (including pricing) is part of its attraction. In an informed market one can never gain more than the average interest rate. In the art market, one can make discoveries based on knowledge."

—Do you have any additional comments on the current state of the African art market today?


This research was conducted amongst 124 international collectors of African art. Online survey results obtained from subscribers of the ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA newsletter. The survey ran from 16 – 30 December 2017.

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