2020 State of the African Art Market

Voice of the Collector

February 27, 2020 By: Adenike Cosgrove

The African art market is coming of age. Never before has so much been written about historical and contemporary African art. Is a bubble forming in contemporary African art and can the hype be believed? Are we reaching the top of the historical art market as lots rake in record prices at auction? How important is dealer expertise when provenance grows in importance?

ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA’s third annual ‘State of the African Art’ report analyses the results of our 2020 collector survey, fleshing out the various ways in which collectors of historical and contemporary African art believe the market has changed over the last twelve months. We delve into the collecting habits of surveyed collectors and analyse issues relating to provenance, pricing, dealer and gallery behaviour, and the continued impact restitution efforts are having on the market.

This year, we had the honour of collaborating with John Warne Monroe, Associate Professor of History at Iowa State University and author of Metropolitan Fetish: African Sculpture and the French Invention of Primitive Art, to analyse the links between today (2020) and 100 years ago (1920) in the time of Paul Guillaume and Charles Ratton.

Collector Profiles

Who’s Collecting African Art?

What is your gender? (Please select one)
'Prefer not to say' removed
Images Courtesy Galerie Bernard Dulon and Sotheby's

Last year, we asked if the African art market was diversifying and the numbers told a discouraging tale. A year later and unfortunately things haven’t much changed—88 percent of surveyed respondents are male. “Historically speaking, the collecting of this material has been stereotypically masculine. In France, when it started as colonial trophies, it was definitely a male thing. And actually, if you look at when African art is first being used in interior design, and when it becomes fashionable in the twenties and thirties, you see African art displayed in masculine spaces like smoking rooms. It’s true of the colonial-style but it also ends up being something that you see within modernist and art deco interiors,” Monroe says. “The association of these objects with a certain kind of masculine interior decor still persists.”

In a market where historical works of art, made by artists from the African continent, is sometimes still seen as “tits and pricks“, much more needs to be done to change this perception and demonstrate that historical African art is accessible to all. Monroe adds that “there is this whole idea that African sculpture is somehow a little risqué or indecent, not something women are going to be interested in. In chapter five of Metropolitan Fetish: African Sculpture and the Imperial French Invention of Primitive Art, I talk about the 1930 African and Oceanic art exhibition at the Galerie du Théâtre Pigalle and the one-week period when a certain set of art pieces were taken out because they didn’t want women, mothers and families to see them.”

“It’s the kind of sentiment that the early modernist writers really pushed back against, including critics like Tristan Tzara. On the one hand, they liked the fact that people saw [the art] as outrageous but on the other, of course, they argued that it was not. This is a space where there is that combination of colonial and modernist legacy.”

What is your age group? (Please select one)
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Photographs by Hermes Rivera and Trevor Cole

Only seven percent of African art collectors are under 35 years old. The majority are in their peak earning years of between 35 and 54 years old—34 percent of respondents account for collectors in this age group. Most survey respondents described themselves as Active Collectors—those that have been ‘collecting continuously and for a while’. Less than ten percent of respondents have ‘just started collecting recently’. Cross correlating the data, 56 percent of collectors younger than 35 years old have only recently started collecting. As a key demographic for sustaining the African art market, it’s critical that dealers, galleries, auction houses and more established collectors do all they can to support this new generation of collectors. Thirty percent of collectors said that they have been ‘collecting for a while, but not as intensely as before’.

Geographically, almost a third—28 percent—of collectors reside in the United States. “I was really surprised that there were so many collectors in the US. I really get a sense of Belgium and France as being dominant regions.” John Warne Monroe says. However, he adds that “in North America, you have encyclopedic art museums that cultivate collector communities. In addition, the academic field of African art history could be one of the reasons why collecting continues in a pretty robust way in the United States. These museums need curators and those curators are PhDs from American universities. This all keeps the market active in the United States.”

How would you describe yourself? (Please select one)
How much do you spend per annum on African art? (Please select one)
N=96 (filtered by 'Active Collectors')

Survey respondents were asked to select the reasons why they collect African art. Buyers overwhelmingly purchase African art because of its aesthetic value. 71 percent of collectors reported the love of the art’s aesthetics as their most important motivator. Second is still passion (69%) and 53 percent collect African art for its cultural value. Bottom of the list is the plan to quickly profit by selling pieces (3%). This may be due to the fact that 55 percent of collectors believe that there are more historical artworks available than there are collectors making it much more difficult to make a profit from their collections. Many are in this for passion, not as an investment.

Analysing the data by age and budget highlights some interesting variations in collecting motivation. Collectors aged 35–54 are more likely (48%) to ‘like rare and/or unusual pieces’ than those aged 65 years or over (32%). In addition, despite only three percent of collectors stating that they collect to profit quickly from their pieces, the percent increases to five percent for those that are 55–64 years old. A final motivator showing variations by age is the need to support African artists. Where younger collectors are more likely to state that they collect contemporary African art than their older peers, collectors that are 35–54 years old also are much more likely to state that they collect ‘to support African artists’ (18%) than collectors that are 65 years of age and older (2.5%).

This correlates with research that suggests that “when customers experience an interaction with a business [in this case, the artist], they want to feel as if their interaction was the result of human agency.” Collectors of contemporary African art want to feel connected with the artists whose work they collect. Collectors are increasingly looking for that human connection, a community.

Collection Focus Areas

What Are They Collecting?

What categories of African art do you have in your collection today? (Please select all that apply)
Images Courtesy Tate and Sotheby's

“‘Art from Africa’. It is imperative that we do not perpetuate the West’s conscious and unconscious tendencies to condense Africa, a continent of a rich variety of traditions, cultures and nations, into lazy simplified descriptors. Africa is a huge continent which has influenced the world in history, art, music, oral and written literature, performance and dance.” There are still many objections to the ‘African Art’ label. What IS African art? Where does the historical stop and the contemporary start?

John Warne Monroe comments that “In American museums, [categorisation] is always a problem. Do you take a Magdalene Odundo pot and put it in your African gallery? Or is it actually contemporary art? And that’s a big issue because, in a lot of ways, the contemporary art market is global.

“Historical African art, on the other hand, is more like the antique trade than it is like the art market. There’s a history there. And it’s interesting that historical African art sort of sits between those two places. You look at [the French art dealers] Paul Guillaume (1891–1934) and Charles Ratton (1897–1986). Guillaume could market African objects primarily as art—albeit proclaiming them to be ancient—in association with contemporary art whereas Ratton primarily sold antiques. Ratton dealt with African objects in very much the same way he would deal with Medieval European ivories or wood carvings.”

Monroe continues, “Paul Guillaume didn’t have a lot of knowledge. He had a lot of fantasies that he projected onto the objects. He might have read maybe fifteen books! Ratton was much more scholarly. He was very methodical about pursuing information and he did it from the point of view of having been an expert already in French antiquities. So he used those same kinds of ideas with African art—looking at patina, looking at how something was carved.”

What types of historical African art do you have in your collection today? (Please select all that apply)
Images Courtesy Christie's

And where does modern art made by artists of African descent fit into these categories and labels? There is a trend in the museum world to fill the ‘African art’ gap in their collections—Tate and MoMa both recently hired Osei Bonsu and Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, curators of “International Art” and “Painting and Sculpture” respectively. Tate mentioned that Bonsu would “focus on further developing the representation of African art in Tate’s collection and programme.” Recent museum acquisitions have focused on work by contemporary artists but what about the modernists such as Ben Enwonwu, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Twins Seven-Seven, and Ibrahim El-Salahi? Ben Enwonwu’s 1974 ‘Tutu’ sold at the Bonhams’ February 2018 Africa Now sale for 1.2 million British Pounds and Sotheby’s October 2019 Modern & Contemporary African Art sale saw Ben Enwonwu’s 1971 ‘Tutu’ sell for 1.1 million British Pounds. Both went to private Nigerian buyers. It appears that collectors based in African countries are filling the modernist gap left by Western institutions.

Commenting on the state of the contemporary art market, one respondent noted that “the market is overheated currently, with many galleries and dealers trying to cash in on the fashionability of this area and a lot of mediocre, repetitive and imitative art is being offered. Buyers and collectors should be discerning, pay attention to critics and museum curators, and follow artists and galleries who present ideas with gravitas. The market for modern African art is its own speciality, and appears to be driven mainly by corporate interests, dominated by heavy hitters in the market for Nigerian and South African modernism.”

For the survey, we defined historical African art as “artworks produced by African artists during and before the early to mid 20th century.” and contemporary African art and “artworks made today; art produced by African artists during and after the late 20th century.” 95 percent of survey respondents currently collect historical African art and 23 percent collect contemporary African art. When asked to select the extent to which they agreed with the statement ‘I have little knowledge about contemporary African art’, 67 percent of respondents either completely or somewhat agreed. While there is a lot of buzz and hype around contemporary African art, very little scholarship exists to educate potential collectors about current artists and the ideas behind their work. Collectors are using Instagram and other social networks to keep up with artists and to monitor how their work evolves over time.

Where historical African art may be perceived as a collecting field for men, contemporary African art does not suffer the same historical challenges. In fact, female survey respondents have a greater propensity to collect contemporary African art. Of the thirty women that completed the ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA survey, 37 percent stated that they collect contemporary African art (compared with 21 percent of men) and eighty percent collect historical art (compared with 97 percent of men).

When asked about the categories of historical African art in their collections, 88 percent of survey respondents stated that they collect figures, 86 percent collect masks, and 56 percent collect divination objects. Of those that collect contemporary African art, seventy percent stated that they collect paintings and illustrations, 49 percent collect sculptures, a third (33%) collect prints and multiples with a close thirty percent collecting photography. Less than two percent of contemporary African art buyers have artworks in film and video in their collections.

“Actually, some of the very earliest African objects that Europeans actively collected and appreciated were weapons,” says Monroe. “But if you look at critic reviews of African art exhibitions in the newspapers from the 1920s, the commentary there tended to be a sense that masks are easier [to appreciate] whereas the figure is tougher. If you look at sceptics talking about African art [figures] in the 1920s and ‘30s, they have trouble appreciating them because in their view the heads were too large and the proportions of the bodies deviated too far from the classical Western canon. Modernists arguing against this took the opposite perspective, describing that freedom with proportion as one of African sculpture’s most appealing qualities.”

“And so, it’s interesting because I have heard dealers tell me that French collectors are more interested in figures, whereas Americans are more interested in masks. And I don’t know if that actually is true.” Monroe concludes. Well, the data slightly corroborates dealer perceptions. Dissecting the historical African art collector base further, ninety percent of collectors based in the US collect masks compared with 82 percent in France. An interesting variation is in forms. Belgian collectors (41%) are 1.5 times more likely than their American (27%) and French (27%) counterparts to collect forms.

There were slight variations between male and female survey respondents too. Men (90%) were more likely to state that they collect masks and headdresses than women (70%) and interestingly, women responded at a slightly higher rate (59%) to collecting shrine and divination objects than their male peers (57%).

Collector Budgets

How Much Do Collectors Spend?

How much do you spend per annum on African art? (Please select one)
'Prefer not to say' and 'Don’t know' removed
Photograph by Thought Catalog

Annual African art budgets remain relatively stable year-on-year with the majority (91%) spending less than fifty thousand US Dollars on African art every year (up from 85% in 2019 and 83% in 2018). This year, however, we combined all responses from those that spend less than five thousand US Dollars per annum and this group now represents the largest number of collectors at 35 percent. Analysing by region, North American collectors are 1.5 times more likely to spend fifty thousand US Dollars or more on African art than survey respondents based in Europe. Unfortunately, the sample size in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and South America was too small to draw any meaningful conclusions.

An active collector based in the United States believes that “there is clearly a correction going on. Prices went up too fast. The last few auctions have been very bad and the total results are somewhat masked by a few very high priced lots. It seems consigners still think this is the market of 10–15 years ago and auction houses may not be setting the appropriate expectations or estimates. There are a lot of burned pieces out there that should have found new homes if the market were allowed to be more efficient. In contrast, contemporary prices are now rising fast. Working with galleries and artists on the Continent seems to be a good strategy.” 78 percent of survey respondents believe that major historical African art pieces are getting harder to find. This may be why there are fewer collectors with budgets at the top end ($50,000+) than in previous years (2020: 9%, 2019: 15%, 2018: 17%).

Annual budget analysed against number of artworks purchased per annum
How much do you spend per annum on African art? (Please select one)
How many artworks do you buy per annum? (Please select one)
'Prefer not to say' and 'Don’t know' removed

The majority of collectors (49%) reported buying 1–5 artworks per year but on average, survey respondents reported buying nine artworks every year. Twenty percent of collectors buy more than twenty artworks every year. As collector budgets increase, so too does the number of artworks they collect. Survey respondents that spend less than five thousand US Dollars buy on average six artworks a year, while those that spend one hundred thousand US Dollars or more reported collecting sixteen artworks every year.

How do you expect your spending on African art will change in the next two years? (Please select one for each column)
'Prefer not to say' and 'Don’t know' removed
N (2020) Historical=203 Contemporary=140

Commenting on the state of the market, a survey respondent notes that “there is a vast supply of sound and genuine middle-range African antique pieces available which makes this a good time to collect, however, it seems the number of collectors is declining overall because few younger people are collecting African ethnographic art and the older generation has sold out and is dying out. The field has been marred by the even more vast supply of fakes and the astronomical prices that Christies and Sotheby’s, in particular, have extracted at the top of the market by mining the wealthiest clients. Dealers are suffering because online sales from multiple auction outlets have increased competition.” Others agree with part of this sentiment—76 percent of survey respondents believe that dealer prices are too high and 59 percent believe that auction prices are too high. This may be why few plan to increase spend on African art over the next two years.

When asked about how they expect their budgets to change over the next two years, of those that responded, 39 percent plan to decrease their spend on historical African art by five percent or more and 27 percent expect a spending decrease on contemporary African art. Perhaps aligned to collector perceptions that prices are increasing, those that spend less than ten thousand US Dollars a year on African art are more likely to report budget increases. 26 percent of those that spend less than ten thousand US Dollars per annum expect to increase their budgets by five percent or more while only fifteen percent of collectors that spend more than ten thousand per annum expect to increase their budgets. As their collections grow and survey respondents mature, they become much more selective about what they buy. In fact, when asked what their biggest mistakes were in collecting African art, many stated that they “should have been more selective”, “bought too much too quickly”, and “[bought based on] quantity instead of quality.”

Calls for looted African art to be ‘sent back’ continues to have an impact on collector spending with nineteen percent of survey respondents stating that they are pausing their collecting of historical African art because of the recent restitution debate (up from fifteen percent in 2019). In addition, 35 percent of survey respondents consider the potential impact of restitution when making a purchasing decision. One collector notes, “I still see monetary value in the high end of classical African sculpture. Masterpieces, when available, still command lower prices than say, contemporary art. I plan to continue collecting although restitution looms heavy on my mind.” Nonetheless, 22 percent of collectors plan to increase their budgets for historical African art and 23 percent expect a rise in spending on contemporary African art over the next two years.

A different pattern emerges amongst those that currently collect contemporary African art. Forty percent of those that reported spending more than ten thousand US Dollars on contemporary art actually expect to increase their budgets for this category of African art.

Collector Buying Patterns

How Do Collectors Purchase?

How often do you purchase African art? (Please select one)
Photograph by Nathan Dumlao

Thirty percent of collectors survey wide reported that they collect at least once a month with 58 percent collecting at least once a year and ten percent collecting more sporadically, once every few years. As is to be expected, 45 percent of respondents that reported themselves to be ‘sporadic collectors’ purchase African art once every few years. Similarly, sixty percent of ‘mature collectors’ buy once every few years. But forty percent of ‘active collectors’ reported that they buy African art a few times a month.

Collectors that purchase several times a month reported buying an average of seventeen artworks a year. Those that purchase a few times a year buy about seven works annually and those that reported buying once a month actually averaged out at about thirteen pieces every year.

Analysing by budget, those with larger budgets are much more active and purchase more frequently. Collectors that reported annually spending ten thousand US Dollars or more on African art were more likely to state that they purchase at least once a month (39%) compared to those that spend less (26%).

Buyers of contemporary African art favour purchasing works directly from artists (56%) before turning to galleries (54%). Collectors might be turning to artists directly because “it is hard for new artists to get noticed without endorsement from the big players controlling art fairs [and] galleries.” Thirty percent of contemporary African art collectors buy from art fairs.

Conversely, the majority of historical African art collectors still continue to rely on dealers and galleries to find new pieces (70%) with online auction sales a close second (61%). ‘Private transactions between collectors and private contacts’ comes in at third with 56 percent of historical African art collectors sourcing artworks through this channel. Collectors that reportedly spend more than fifty thousand US Dollars annually on African art are most likely to attend auctions in person, a tendency that declines as budgets reduce.

Artwork purchase channels that trend upward with budget
How do you purchase African art today? (Please select all that apply)
How much do you spend per annum on African art? (Please select one)

When asked if they believe that buying from a dealer is safer than buying from an auction house, 44 percent of respondents agreed. That percentage increases slightly for those that spend less than ten thousand dollars per annum (46%) and decreases for those that spend more (40%). There is increasing concern about the dealer channel for historical African art. As one collector noted, “unfortunately many of the ‘old guard’ dealers with real knowledge are dying off or retiring. There are many in the field with sparse to little knowledge and they are vetting and being consulted without knowing what they are really doing. This is a concern [for] serious collectors, the shortage of real expertise. It’s tantamount to having a bad therapist that leads you astray. We see lots of copies in the market now, many with dealers with normally good reputations.”

Others question the behaviour of dealers and galleries, with a collector commenting that there are “too many self-appointed experts. Fierce competition leading to back-stabbing among dealers,” a viewpoint that this collector concurs with; “the fact that most of the dealers call other dealers’ [artworks] fake kills the mood to collect African art.” Another respondent added that they “question why objects are still manipulated and changed in the market, or sold between dealers with changes to their appearance, without dealers being held to account, this eludes me! I have seen this happen between major dealers, with an item changing its appearance 3–4 times over two years and still exhibited at major fairs.”

From a historical perspective, dealer antics aren’t a new trend. John Warne Monroe shares how during his research into how dealers shaped the market in the 1920s he “found an essay from 1921 where a French art critic said that “ah yes, these dealers all say that everyone else’s stuff is fake”. Back then, though, in the ’20s, dealers and connoisseurs generally assumed that the fakes were made in France, not in Africa. Among sceptics, the perception was that African sculpture was sufficiently simple that, if you had the right type of wood, a skilled Parisian practicien – a professional sculpture replicator – could easily make tons of copies. Now it’s a different set of concerns. For me what’s really striking here is that dealers have been questioning the authenticity of one another’s inventories ever since African sculpture was first marketed as art. Today, we all know that one of the characteristics of this field is that authenticity is tenuous. Turns out that’s been true for a very long time. It seems as if the economic logic of competition in this market means that, probably, the temptation to build yourself up by impugning other dealers’ wares is pretty high.”

Turning to auctions, collectors that spend more than ten thousand US Dollars on art are 1.5 times more likely to physically attend auctions than those that spend less. Collectors with higher budgets are also 1.3 times more likely to buy from online auctions. That said, there is a consensus that auction prices are too high. “Prices at auction, with the slick marketing and written ‘bumpf’, do appear to have been ridiculously high this year [2019],” notes a survey respondent. Monroe shares that “it is definitely true that [recently] you see much more effort [on the part of auction houses] to tell stories about the objects and really market the collector. That’s something that [the dealers] Charles Ratton and Louis Carré leveraged. In preparing for their now legendary auctions in 1931, rather than listing the pieces as property from anonymous collectors, as was the norm in auctions then, Ratton and Carré wanted to name the collectors in the catalogue. The 1931 sales confirmed Ratton’s sense of the commercial power of a resonant name. The May 7 sale of “Sculptures d’Afrique, d’Amerique, d’Oceanie” (AAO) in which no collectors were identified by name, generated only 83,700 francs for 153 lots. The other two sales, with collectors’ names in marquee positions, did much better. The Breton-Eluard sale grossed 285,290 francs for 312 lots, and the de Mire sale on December 16 yielded 279,725 francs for 166 lots. But it’s really more recently that telling provenance stories in an auction context has become a kind of art.”

A survey respondent notes that “at auctions, it can go in all directions lately, both extremely high and low prices,” and with a hint of frustration, another notes that “auction prices are out of control. [It] has to end sometime.” But one collector challenges perceptions of a market at its peak stating that “it seems the market is healthier than people think. I see so many objects being sold in online auctions from deceased estates. Everything of quality is selling—even low quality,” with another adding that there are “too many auctions at least in Europe—France, Belgium, Germany and now the UK!”

Artwork purchase channels that trend downward with budget
How do you purchase African art today? (Please select all that apply)
How much do you spend per annum on African art? (Please select one)

Eight percent of collectors turn to art consultants or advisors to purchase historical African art with slightly more (14%) sourcing contemporary African art from advisors. Despite the perceived increase in art advsors in this space, only a small number of art buyers turn to advisors to source artworks. That said, 62 percent of survey respondents seek recommendations from third parties before making a purchase. While a large percentage of collectors seem to trust themselves above all else, the majority turn to books, dealers, scholars, museums and advisors. Of note, when asked, in an open text field, to share what sources they turn to for advice and expertise, a number of respondents mentioned Internet sites and social media groups with Artkhade, the Guy van Rijn ‘African Heritage Documentation & Research Centre‘, and the Great or Fake? Discovering African Art Facebook Group (now with 4,549 members) all mentioned. To those that mentioned, ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA, we salute you!

Online collaboration appears to be motivating some collectors to make purchase via social media. Fourteen percent of collectors reported buying African art through this channel. Analysing by age group, 28 percent of collectors that are 35–54 years old reported buying from social media—they are twice as likely to buy from social media than all survey collectors. Dealers should take note of this. As one collector states, “I do think that dealers are missing the tool at their disposal in keeping their websites up to date and relevant/valid for items for sale. Not everyone can get over to the major fairs. Some dealers if approached via e-mail enquiry really don’t seem interested in expanding information or offering objects to sell. I would have thought that as they are ‘dealers’ that they would be keen to sell the objects they hold but this doesn’t strike me as the case. Some websites have remained ‘static’ for 3 years. Some dealers have had single ‘holding pages’ for the last 5 years stating that a website is ‘coming soon’.”

Core Collecting Requirements

What Do Collectors Need?

Which of the following are most important to you when purchasing artwork? (Please select your top three choices)
N All=241
N <$10,000=128
N $10,000+=85

Collectors were asked to rank the factors they consider most important when purchasing artwork—artwork quality was the most cited (74%) and was consistent across all budgets and age ranges. Artwork authentication (33%) was the second most frequently cited requirement of collectors.

Ranking by annual budgets, the data tells us that affordability is critical for those that spend less than ten thousand US Dollars—it is the second most frequently reported factor that influences collector purchasing of African art. Artwork cost drops to fifth place for those that spend more than ten thousand US Dollars every year. When asked what mistakes were made during their collecting journies, one collector that plans to increase spend on contemporary African art by between 5%–25% explained that “considering price the major issue in collecting African art” was a mistake, while another collector who reported spending $10,000–$49,999 every year on African art shared that “buying medium quality at an attractive price” was something they didn’t want to repeat. In African art especially, price does not always equal quality and where quality is the number one concern for all, perhaps collectors that spend more have learned this lesson over the years as their budgets increased.

As younger collectors start their journies, they work to identify dealers and advisors that they can trust. Ranking by age, 33 percent of collectors in the 35–54 age range ranked reliability and trust as the third most important decision-making factor, after artwork quality (73%) and artwork authentication (33%). This drops down to the fifth factor for those aged 65 years and older (21%).

Where there is relative consistency across most countries, French collectors stand out in one regard, they value dealer and gallery expertise—this is the second most important factor for 25 percent of French respondents. Bottom of the list for all were customs and website content, at less than one percent each.

Provenance is a contentious topic in this field of collecting. Twenty-eight percent of all survey respondents cited artwork provenance as the third most important factor they consider before making a purchase. This moved up to the second factor considered for 33 percent of collectors that spend more than ten thousand US Dollars annually on African art and also for collectors aged 55 years or older.

“There are specific rules of the antique trade in terms of what is authentic and inauthentic. [Authenticity] remains the factor that protects the investment of the collector who buys the piece,” Monroe remarks, adding that “it’s actually a lot like Paul Guillaume, because Guillaume made a big deal out of his ability to distinguish between the truly ancient, wonderful, valuable object, and the lesser piece or the fake. He had his own fantasies about the dates things were made, but the objects had to look a certain way in order to back his claims about how old they were. That’s where provenance starts to get really important: it gives you a sign that other people recognized as having good judgment have already identified the object as something special. The more famous and widely-revered those names are, the better. In that way, provenance functions a lot like an artist’s signature, except that usually, the people doing the signing are the Westerners who singled out the object for appreciation, not the African who actually made it. Though this is becoming less true as scholars identify more individual artists and workshops.”

This need for authenticated artworks with provenance is leading to some unscrupulous behaviour: “[There are] too many fake provenances with no mention of major restorations by sellers,” opines a Belgian collector that spends between $50,000–$99,999 every year on historical and contemporary African art. Another collector who buys from auction sales online adds that there are “a lot of online offers with shady provenance.”

That said, even though almost a third of survey respondents look for provenance before making a purchase, collectors are divided about the correlation between provenance and artwork value. 53 percent of collectors believe that the value of historical African art is in its provenance with fourteen percent completely agreeing with this assertion.

Monroe continues, “It’s definitely true that provenance has become a major way in which value is defined in the African art market. The piece that is going to fetch the most money is going to have [a proven provenance], and one without that is going to be much harder to sell for top prices. Provenance isn’t just names, though. It’s also an object’s history more generally. Take the Rivière Baule moon mask: part of why it went for so much at auction is because it’s been reproduced so often. I’d also suggest that maybe it also gets a boost from the fact that there are so many fake copies of it out there, inspired by all those illustrations! So I think it’s actually really complicated to separate aesthetic quality from provenance, just as it’s hard to look at the Mona Lisa without also knowing in your gut that at this point it has become ‘the world’s most famous painting.’”

On value, a collector notes that “auction houses keep adding and listing never-ending and manipulated provenances making you think that if you don’t have any, then your piece is worth nothing even if sometimes it is older and more beautiful!” Another survey respondent shares that “provenance is given too much weight. Provenance is often worth more than aesthetics. Worthy pieces are worth little if the wrong people owned them. Such is life!” A Swiss collector that spends $5,000–$9,999 a year, collecting a few times a month concludes that “provenance is the illness of the art market because most so-called “experts” have no clue at all about the subject… Therefore provenance has to replace connoisseurship.”


What Say You?

One of the key conclusions of the 2020 ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA ‘State of the African Art Market’ Collector Survey is that this is a market in flux—it’s maturing through its teenage phase and with that, experiencing some growing pains. As one collector put it, “it’s still a very immature market that needs to grow up.” It’s a nascent market with plenty of room to grow. Sotheby’s October 2019 sale of 100 works of Modern and Contemporary African Art realised four million British Pounds ($5.1 million), the highest total ever achieved for an auction sale in this category. Buyers residing in African countries accounted for two-thirds of the total turnover of the auction. As a French survey respondent stated, “if occidental dealers want to “rebuild” their market, they must consider that enhancing relationships with African customers (and also African dealers) is the key… No Africa = no market… I suggest that dealers should present contemporary African artworks with ‘tribal’ art. Less Picasso, more young Congolese or Ivorian artists.”

And while prices on the top-end of the historical market went up pretty quickly over the last few years, a young collector, aged between 26–34 with an annual budget of $5,000–$9,999 said that “a lot of pieces are available for good prices if you know how and where to look. I do believe it is the best period for buying if you have money to spend/invest but you need to be backed up with solid knowledge and experience that you cannot always find in old biased books that most people in the field tend to consider as “references”.” He concludes that “African art needs to be loved and appreciated for what it truly is… with all its meanings and emotions. The essence of pure creativity, without external influence, made by someone who did what he was best at doing and certainly not for what it represents in terms of money or as a political tool.”

Survey Methodology

Who Are The Survey Respondents?

The 2020 ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA ‘State of the African Art’ Collector Survey received a total of 250 responses from international collectors of African art. Online survey results were obtained from subscribers of the ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA newsletter. The survey ran from 17 December 2019–04 January 2020. The survey represents responses from African art collectors in 31 countries.

John Warne Monroe

John Warne Monroe is Associate Professor of History at Iowa State University. He has an B.A. in History and Creative Writing from Princeton, and a PhD. in History from Yale. His research focuses on the concept of “modernity” and the various ways in which it shaped French – and more broadly, Western – people’s conceptions of themselves, their past, and their places in the world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He is the authour of Metropolitan Fetish: African Sculpture and the French Invention of Primitive Art, a book about France, its colonial empire, African sculpture, and the invention of the idea of “primitive art” in the years after the First World War. A recent article he published on this new topic received the 2013 William Koren Jr. Prize from the Society for French Historical Studies. Prof. Monroe is also a noted teacher: he has received several university awards in recognition of his performance in the classroom, and in 2012, the Princeton Review named him one of the country’s 300 Best Professors. Photograph by Paul Wilkinson Photography.

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