Last year, our survey revealed collector optimism—over a third of collectors forecasted a more than five percent increase in their spend on ‘classic’ African art and ‘active collectors’ represented fifty percent of the survey sample. Fast forward twelve months and collectors of African art tell a different story. Market instability, requests for the return of historical African art, and the rise in high-quality fakes have increased uncertainty and decreased spend on African art—this year, only seven percent plan to increase spend on historical African art by more than 25 percent, down from eighteen percent last year.
And yet, the African art marketplace remains buoyant—more than half of the survey collectors buy a few times a year and forty percent of collectors state that their budgets are expected to remain largely the same over the next two years.
In this year’s study, we investigate the changes in collector buying patterns and the potential impact the restitution debate will have on future collections.
Is the African art market diversifying? Unfortunately not, according to the data. A significant percentage of surveyed collectors are European, male, and over 55—87 percent are men, 52 percent are 55 years of age or older, and European collectors account for an enormous 63 percent of the list with the majority residing in France, Belgium, and the United Kingdom—women represent only eleven percent of surveyed collectors.
But is a new generation entering this field of collecting? The data might suggest so. 39 percent of survey respondents are aged between 35 and 54 and seven percent of respondents are younger than 35, up from just three percent in 2018.
The number of active collectors dropped this year with 44 percent stating that they ‘have collected continuously and for a while’, down from fifty percent in 2018. The number of mature collectors increased however with 32 percent stating that they ‘have been collecting for a while, but not as intensely as before’. The number of young collectors that ‘started collecting recently’ remains the same at ten percent.
When asked why they collect African art, top was its aesthetic value with 83 percent ranking this as their primary motivator for collecting. Second is passion—the emotion generated from African art is the driving factor behind 69 percent of respondents collecting in this field. Many may view themselves as temporary custodians of works made by artists from the African continent—sixty percent collect African art because of its cultural value. Only six percent collect African art ‘to achieve investment diversification‘ and only five percent collect African art because they plan to ‘quickly profit by selling piece’.
Dissecting the data further shows some interesting variations in motivation. Collectors that spend ten thousand US Dollars or more per annum on African art are more likely (62%) to ‘like rare and/or unusual pieces’ than those that spend less (52%). In addition, lower spenders (72%) are much more likely to collect because of African art’s cultural value than those that spend more (52%). Is this a sign that higher spenders are less likely to place priority on the traditional history or context of a piece and are instead more focused on its aesthetic appeal?
This year we changed our definitions because as one collector stated in the 2018 study, “the definition of classic African art as ’18th-century or before’ is absolutely wrong. Even 19th-century objects are scarce in the market… A more appropriate definition is African sculpture with a history in known Western collections with a trading history at major dealers or auction houses. That is in fact what classic African art is today.”
What was ‘classic’ African art last year we called ‘historical’ this time, artworks produced by African artists during and before the early twentieth century. What we called ‘modern’ was combined with ‘contemporary’ to represent artworks made today, art produced by African artists during and after the late twentieth century. Did we get the new definitions right? It seems so.
With the definitions cleared up, the most popular field of collecting is historical African art with 95 percent of collectors stating that they collect African art made during and before the early twentieth century (up from the 69 percent last year that stated that they have ‘classic’ African art in their collections). 26 percent collect contemporary African art.
Mostly purchasing a few times a year, the majority of collectors turn to a number of sources to make those purchases. The most frequently used channel for the purchase of historical African art is galleries and dealers—71 percent of survey respondents that collect historical African art turn to dealers to purchase art. When asked what they value most in a gallery or dealer, nineteen percent stated that expertise was the most important service; reliability/trust (14%), merchandise quality (12%), reputation (12%), and merchandise authentication (7%) round out the top five most important services collectors look for in a dealer or gallery.
In at a close second as a channel for the purchase of historical African art are online auction sales, with 66 percent of collectors turning to online auction platforms to purchase historical African art—interestingly a much smaller number, 45 percent, of collectors attend auctions in person to buy African art. According to the TEFAF Art Market Report: Online Focus, eight percent of total art auction sales were sold through online sales branches, bidding online during a live sale remains more popular than online-only sales, and auction houses that have actively embraced online engagement have gained an advantage.
This rings true for African art too with one collector noting the potential impact auction sales are having on dealers; “Auction prices are ridiculously high and driving well-established dealers into a state of concern or to have to up their own prices accordingly.”
What are the top five services collectors look for from auction sales? Expertise (12%), merchandise selection availability (10%), merchandise provenance (10%), merchandise quality (9%), and merchandise authentication (9%). Price transparency is an added bonus of buying at auction as 63 percent believe that they have overpaid for some of the pieces in their collections. That may be why 81 percent of surveyed collectors closely following the sale prices of pieces sold at auctions.
Interestingly, 59 percent of collectors of historical African art will turn to each other (i.e. private transactions between collectors/private contacts) to source pieces but 44 percent of collectors have sold a piece and later regretted it.
Buying directly from artists is extremely popular with collectors of contemporary African art with a whopping 67 percent stating that they source this way. In stark contrast to collectors of historical art, only 24 percent buy from other collectors, perhaps because many are still building out their collections of contemporary African art.
Only 34 percent of collectors of historical African art and 36 percent of those that collect contemporary African art buy from art fairs. However, a huge percentage of collectors do visit fairs to discover African art. 63 percent attend Parcours des Mondes, 56 percent visit BRUNEAF, and 40 percent visit BRAFA. 19 percent of collectors visit fairs for the exhibition space and ambience (19%), events (18%), merchandise quality (13%), merchandise selection availability (11%), and exhibitor expertise (10%).
The vast majority of the collectors surveyed (85%) spend less than fifty thousand US Dollars on African art every year, with most collectors spending between ten thousand and 49 thousand US Dollars per annum (32 percent of survey respondents, up from 26 percent in 2018). Less than six percent spend more than one hundred thousand US Dollars every year on African art.
However, the data suggest an imminent slowdown. Of those that responded, 21 percent plan to increase their spending on historical African art by more than five percent in the next two years, that’s down significantly from the 34 percent last year. Only seven percent of collectors plan to increase spend on historical African art by more than 25 percent. Breaking this down further by price range, only fourteen percent of those that spend more than ten thousand US Dollars a year plan to increase their spend on historical African art in the next two years.
In September 2018, the Artkhade Tribal Art Market report indicated that 2017 delivered a “healthy and growing tribal-art market… [with auctions] achieving a turnover of a little over €80 million… the second-best year in the history of the market.” But the same report warned that “a huge boost in the number of pieces placed on sale was not necessarily matched by a rise in turnover. The number of pieces going on auction went up to an astonishingly unprecedented 9,500… The unsold rate remains high at 45%.”
So why the slowdown? Is it because “auction prices are ridiculously high”, or is it that “fakes are destroying the market”, or perhaps the market is slowing down because “provenance is now 90% of the value of historic African art… but it is required to justify a high value and it protects an investment”. Then, of course, there is the debate about restitution and the potential impact this will have on the market… but more on that later. Well, market dynamics have a big part to play. The instability and uncertainty in the global economy and political landscape are expected to affect the “supply of and demand for works of art”, as stated in the Sotheby’s 2017 annual financial report with the auction house’s CEO Tad Smith stating during their third-quarter 2018 earnings call that “market conditions in 2019 [are expected] to be a bit more subdued than what we experienced at the end of 2017 and into early 2018.” In addition, 59 percent of collectors agree that the pieces they want are all very expensive, perhaps leading to hesitation.
The contemporary market isn’t immune to market dynamics either. Economic instability is leading many to reassess their spend with 31 percent planning to decrease spending over the next two years. However, this is much more pronounced in the sub-ten thousand US dollar annual spend bracket—42 percent will decrease spending over the next two years compared to just eleven percent of those that spend ten thousand or more per annum on contemporary African art.
In addition, contemporary African art is seeing “some recent trends in auction sales—extremely high prices realised out of nowhere for nascent artists. [What’s] alarming are the attempts to fix the market, something that might have long term implications”, says one collector.
Despite only five percent of collectors looking to turn a profit from their collections, 21 percent do regularly sell pieces. 37 percent of surveyed collectors have never sold a piece from their collection but thirty percent would consider it, only seven percent would never consider selling from their collections—collectors of African art are not reluctant to part with works they have purchased.
In our article, ‘Send It Back!‘, chronicling the restitution debate, it’s clear that the most prominent voices are from the public sector—scholars, academics, curators, and government officials. Rarely have we heard from the dealers in this field and even rarer still, the collectors of historical African art. To understand the impact the call for the return of looted African art is having on the collector market, we asked respondents if they are pausing their collecting of historical African art because of the restitution debate, fifteen percent agreed. More concerning, eleven percent are moving away from African art because of the calls for the restitution of historical African art (fourteen percent of those that spend more than ten thousand US dollars per annum on African art).
If we look to how many African collections in today’s museums were formed, a great number of these artworks were assembled and donated by collectors and philanthropists, people passionate about preserving the heritage of African artworks and culture (‘Cleveland Museum of Art acquires a stellar collection of Congolese art from Odette Delenne of Belgium‘ and the Bamilete tsesah crest, acquired by the MET in 2017, collected in Cameroon by Pierre Dartevelle are examples). As once collector notes, “I wish politicians and ideologues would stop seeing collectors as thieves”. With a percentage of collectors moving from this field, perhaps a new collector-philanthropist is required, the African philanthropist.
However, twenty percent of collectors believe that they will be able to find good deals because of the restitution debate and many believe that there are greater problems facing the market including the increase in high-quality fakes and the lack of expertise in this field. “The African Art market is not affected at all by the repatriation debate. Zero. Like other areas of fine art, there is a finite amount, although Africa is vast. Certain areas also come into vogue and experience a great sudden demand, while others flatten out. As always, the key is quality and rarity. The better dealers and collectors know this. Two problems facing the market, in particular, are the advent of very high-quality forgeries and the lack and dying off of real expertise. Otherwise collecting can be very rewarding on many levels if you develop your own eye and knowledge. African art is still very affordable compared to the other disciplines”, concludes one collector.
To conclude, we asked collectors what they plan to do with their collections in the future, whether they plan to sell or donate their artworks when the time comes. Results were pretty evenly split with 28 percent planning to sell their collections via auctions, a quarter of respondents planning to gift their collections to family or friends, and another quarter planning to donate or sell their collections to a museum or public institution. Only seven percent aim to sell their collections to dealers.
Even though just over a quarter of collectors plan to sell their collections at auction, 41 percent are concerned that it will be increasingly difficult for them to sell their artworks. Those planning to donate to museums should take note; “I’ve had some contact over the years with museum curators and I believe that with relatively few exceptions, the idea of donating a collection to a museum is a fantasy. Museums have collecting committees which plan quite carefully for the long-term; acquisitions are not simply a matter of accepting material when offered, no matter how desirable the objects might be”, shares an American collector of historical African art.
But it’s not all doom and gloom—a collector notes that the market is “pulsating, mesmerizing, and exciting.” Another collector shares that the African art market is “still relatively small, but likely to expand as wealth expands in Africa.“
"The restitution question is a very interesting one. In my own case, I've always planned to give my collection to a museum eventually, so for me, any anxiety about what will happen to the market in the future is not really an issue. We don't have any children, so there will be no heirs to 'liquidate' for.
What the restitution issue now does, though, is create a new question: which museums will I give the objects to? It may well be that rather than donating the whole collection to the nearest U.S. 'encyclopaedic art museum', it will instead make more sense to donate various objects to national museums in their countries of origin.
My hope is that a major wave of restitution might lead African museums to become stronger, better equipped and better-funded institutions. If that happens, I'd very gladly send back whichever objects those museums might find important when the time comes. Given my age (mid-40s) and the urgency of the climate crisis, however, I do increasingly wonder if there will even *be* museums—or a functional civilisation to sustain them—anywhere in the world when (or if) I reach my four score and ten. If there aren't, then there probably won't be an art market either, which will render this entire question moot."
This research was conducted amongst 125 international collectors of African art. Online survey results obtained from subscribers of the ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA newsletter. The survey ran from 11 – 30 December 2018.