Pandemic, what pandemic? You’d be forgiven for thinking that COVID-19 and its impact on global economies are over, what with art auction sales well into the billions of dollars in 2021.
Where 2020 saw auction houses and galleries shut their doors and work to quickly pivot to private deals and online sales — almost half of all Christie’s auctions now take place online-only — 2021 saw a reopening. Where many collectors decided that 2020 was not the best year to sell or buy, 2021 saw buyers flock back to auctions, desperate to feed that acquisitive need.
In the last two months of 2021, there was a frenzy of auctions. Binoche et Giquello, Bonhams, Christie’s, Cornette de Saint Cyr, Heritage Auctions, Lyon & Turnbull, Native, Skinner, Sotheby’s, and Zemanek-Münster all held dedicated auctions of classic African art in November and December alone.
The gavel was struck on the sound block at the season’s last auction, the Lombrail – Teucquam Arts Premier sale, on December 19th.
An interesting trend in the winter sales was the collaboration between auction houses and their once rivals, dealers. Where there is a distinct lack of ‘experts’ in auction houses, many filled that gap by partnering with individual dealers. Less competition and more cooperation, a symbiotic relationship is taking place where the dealers find the art and the auction houses bring the buyers.
The November 25 sale of the Maine Durieu collection successfully leveraged the expertise of dealers Charles-Wesley Hourdé and Nicolas Rolland. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the Binoche et Giquello December 17 sale of the Sam And Lilette Szafran collection where four experts and dealers — Patrick Caput, Bernard Dulon, Alain de Monbrison, and Emilie Salmon — were consulted on the sale of 117 lots. Almost thirty percent of the lots went unsold. Alain Dufour presided over the sale at Lombrail – Teucquam. The winter auctions also saw dealers place pieces up for auction where they may have failed to sell at their galleries or at art fairs.
In a collecting field that remains incredibly opaque, auction results provide a glimpse into the performance and health of the classic African art market. As the year unlike any other winds to a close, we review some of the winter auction sales of 2021, uncovering the surprises, successes and headwinds that shaped the market at the end of the year.
2021 was a historic year for Sotheby’s — the auction house reported total sales (including associated fees) of $7.3 billion on December 16, 71 percent up from last year and the largest total in the auction house’s 277-year history.
Much of that growth is reported to have come from its sales of modern and contemporary art and the auction of the most valuable single-owner collection, Works from the Macklowe Collection, totalling $676 million. NFTs further expanded the auction house’s audience to a new demographic of collectors, and sales in Asia set new records. The same cannot be said for the Sotheby’s African & Oceanic Art department.
The auction house held two sales of classic African art in November — its Art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas New York auction on 22 November followed by the Paris Arts d’Afrique, d’Océanie et des Amériques sale on November 30th. Both sales brought in a total of approximately $2.3 million.
Forty-six lots of African art were up for sale at the New York auction — 37 sold with a total result of $871,794 (including all fees) against low and high estimates of $865,200 and $1,343,800 respectively.
Lot 44 was the star of the show. The Songye nkisi power figure made by an unknown artist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo was the top lot of the sale at $478,800 against an estimate of $300,000 – $500,000. This single figure accounted for over half of the sale total.
Lot 48, a Baga female figure from Guinea sold for $50,400 against an estimate of $60,000 – $80,000, placing this figure among the top three of that style sold at auction according to the Artkhade auction results database.
Lot 53, the Arman Dan dangle mask, sold for $47,880 (est. $20,000 – $30,000). It sold at auction in 1967 for just $200 (that’s $1,656 in today’s money), proving that provenance rules and that the African art market is indeed growing and prices inch up every day.
Surprisingly, lot 57, the Akan akua’ba figure from Ghana sold for $22,680 against an estimate of between $800 – $1,200. A similar akua’ba figure, lot 74 from the Christie’s 11 March 2021 Paris sale, sold for €17,500 against an estimate of €200 – €300. Collectors of Wednesday Children are growing increasingly competitive.
And most surprising of all is the fact that lot 58, the Yoruba Gelede mask made by Arobatan of Pobè did not sell. Widely published and exhibited numerous times, this was the first auction appearance for the mask. That said, the estimate of between $100,000 and $150,000 placed the mask at the number three position of most expensive Gelede masks sold at auction after the Robert Rubin mask that sold for $842,500 in 2011 and the Nago mask that was bought by Sheikh Saud bin Muhammad bin Ali bin Abdullah bin Jassim bin Muhammed Al Thani (more on him later) at Sotheby’s in December 2011 for €192,750.
Of the New York sale, 43 percent of all African art lots sold below their estimates or did not sell at all. Does this point to issues with quality, choosier collectors, the impact of a flood of sales and choice, or actually a sign that estimates were too high in this sale? Many collectors grumbled about the high estimates across the Sotheby’s auctions.
The Sotheby’s Paris sale did not fare much better. Sixty-one lots of African art were put up for sale — 32 sold for €1.2 million against a combined high estimate of €2.8 million. Just three lots — lots 136, 140 and 177 — accounted for 56 percent of total sales. All three lots were once in the collection of Sheikh Saud bin Muhammed Al Thani (don’t worry, we will come back to him, promise).
Lot 136 was the top lot of the Paris sale, a Baule konantre heddle pulley. Once used by Baule weavers to create beautiful indigo and white cotton textiles, this embellished pulley showcases an artist’s skill in the two-horned buffalo head carved on this simple functional object. The auction catalogue notes that “the head of the buffalo with two horns represents Gouli, son of Nyame, the sky. In Baule mythology the primordial god Odouboua created the sky, Nyame, and the earth, Assie. With Ago, his second wife, Nyame fathered two sons Gouli and Gbekre.”
Collected in the Ivory Coast by Léonce & Pierre Guerre before 1927, the konantre was sold by Sotheby’s in June 2011 to Sheikh Saoud al-Thani for €240,750. Ten years later, it was back at Sotheby’s and sold for less than half its 2011 value — a collector determined that the heddle pulley is now worth €113,400.
Lot 140, the Senufo tugubele seated figure is a spectacular example of the elegance and strong lines of Senufo art. The artist, the so-called “Master of the Cock’s Comb Hairstyle,” was successful in reducing the figure to its abstracted essence, creating an elongated silhouette of female power and strength. A similar example was sold by Sotheby’s in June 2016 and another was exhibited at the musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac at its Les Maîtres De La Sculpture exhibition in 2015.
And yet, again, the figure at the Sotheby’s Paris auction sold for less than half of its 2011 value. Sheikh Saoud al-Thani bought the figure at the Sotheby’s The Robert Rubin Collection of African Art auction for $812,500. It sold in 2021 for €339,200.
The Songye headrest rounds out the top three lots sold in Paris. It comes with a very early provenance — collected by Capitain F. Vandevelde before 1891, the headrest was among the first Songye works to be published in the West (1892, Vol. X., Bulletin de la Société d’Anthropologie de Bruxelles, Conférence de M. Le Capitaine F. Vandevelde sur les Collections Ethnographiques Rapportées de son Dernier Voyage au Congo. Jacques, M.V.). In the volume, Vandevelde comments; “pillows with grimacing figures, of which two of the most curious specimens have been found… One of these here represents a man with only one arm, like the god Bro.” While the headrest almost tripled its high estimate of €180,000 in June 2013, making €505,500, in 2021, it fetched €252,000.
So, what is going on? Did the Sheikh spend recklessly between 2011 and 2013? Was he ill-advised? Has the market corrected or have collector tastes simply shifted?
Commenting on Instagram, Gary Van Wyk of Axis Gallery shared that he believes a correction is taking place; “I think [the results] signal a correction from overheated prices fanned by a few super-wealthy buyers who have been stoked by major auction houses.”
The final question remains, what do these results mean for the African & Oceanic Art department at Sotheby’s.
And now for something entirely different, the Maine Durieu Collection sale that was held at Binoche et Giquello, Paris on November 25.
Many say that the middle market is shrinking, that it is dying and that galleries would be wise to focus instead on the big spenders and contemporary art collectors. The sale of the Maine Durieu collection proved otherwise.
The impressive collection of 277 lots, amassed by the leading-edge French dealer over more than four decades, sold for €491,000 with the average price across all lots at €1,949. Only 25 lots did not sell, just nine percent of the total. The auction results demonstrate that millions are not required to collect excellent pieces of classic African art and the success of the sale was in part because the auction offered up more than the conventional mask and figure.
This sale was all about surfaces — oxidised bronze pendants, smooth wooden Lobi figures, encrusted Dogon Tellem figures and masks covered in crusty kaolin, all collected by Maine Durieu during her time on the African continent, living in Niger, Benin, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.
"We are thrilled about the great results of this sale. We believe this collection presented the perfect combination of what the market is expecting. First of all, Maine Durieu was a very appreciated person. She was respected for her generosity, her passion, her eye and exquisite taste. And it was an old fashion auction where all the objects were really for sale, meaning that the estimates were low and there were no reserve prices."—Charles-Wesley Hourdé and Nicolas Rolland
The auction shows that she had a clear preference for bronzes made by Gan artists from Burkina Faso — 42 lots from the sale were made by Gan artists. Fire and magic, metal and time, the bronzes were unearthed by local farmers or gold miners in the south west of Burkina Faso. And so, it’s logical that the top lot of the sale was indeed a Gan piece. The trophy lot of the sale was a Gan bronze bracelet which sold for €65,000 and was picked up by the musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. Where some collectors may have been put off by archaeological material due to the current restitution debate, the bracelet has perhaps found a rightful home in a national museum.
In a joint statement, Charles-Wesley Hourdé and Nicolas Rolland shared their joy at the sale to the museum, “We are very proud that the musée du Quai Branly acquired the important Gan bracelet. It will become a wonderful ambassador of this quite unknown people, and recognition of Maine Durieu’s lifelong work for the promotion of their art.”
Many lots broke their top estimates. Noteworthy is the gold Kulango korabohula miniature figure of shiny goodness that sold for €26,650, more than doubling its high estimate of €12,000. A similar example of this extremely rare form in gold is in the Pierluigi Peroni collection.
Another lot of note is the Senufo bronze pendant that sold for €4,550 against an estimate of between €600 – €800. The beautiful metallic brown colour of the pendant, its excellent quality and its rarity saw two bronze collectors in the auction room fight it out to win.
Among the auction’s interesting lots were a Dogon figure which sold for €14,950, well above its €5,000 estimate and the Ikwerre headdress, published in Arts of Nigeria in French Private Collections, which sold for €13,650.
Christie’s, like Sotheby’s, also shifted in 2021 to expand beyond its traditional offering of art and antiques. 2021 sales at the auction house totalled $7.1 billion, up 54 percent from 2020. The auction house recorded its highest total in the last five years, and 2021 also saw a record number of private sales. Christie’s was also the first auction house to sell NFTs — Beeple’s Everydays sold for $69 million in March 2021.
The success extended to its Asian and World Art department (Asian, African, Oceanic, Islamic Art) which brought in $500 million in 2021, up 56 percent from 2020, propelled by the record-breaking La Collection Michel Périnet auction that brought in €66 million for the auction house, a new auction record for any African and Oceanic art auction.
The Christie’s Arts d’Afrique, d’Océanie et des Amériques auction on 2 December 2021 contributed to the auction house’s success. The auction raised a total of €2.8 million with fees, against estimates of between €1.4 million and €2.1 million for 25 African art lots. Eighteen lots were sold. However, the results do represent a decrease of 22 percent on the total proceeds from the blockbuster December sale from a year ago that brought in a total of €3.6 million for 33 African art lots.
Here’s where we find out more about Sheikh Saud bin Muhammed Al Thani. Several lots in the Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales came with the Al Thani provenance. Not one, not two, but eight lots from the Christie’s sale were once in Sheikh Saud bin Muhammed Al Thani’s collection.
A trophy hunter, Sheikh Saud bin Muhammed Al Thani collected broadly. A Qatari prince and cousin of the ruling emir of Qatar, Sheikh Saud was appointed minister of culture, arts and heritage in 1997. In that position, he was responsible for acquiring art and antiques for several state-owned museums. He’s said to have spent upwards of $1.5 billion over a six-year period — much to the joy of the dealers, galleries, auction houses and art advisors that he acquired from (and it looks like collecting African art very much runs in the family).
In a rare 2004 interview with The Art Newspaper, Sheikh Saud described his collecting approach; “I go by masterpieces… Pieces from an important church, a major family, a great collection, these really interest me; they have a history and a provenance. You can get them in the best possible condition, and there are no problems of authenticity.” He added; “I don’t feel I have to compete for every object. But when a great work of art comes up for sale, it is never too expensive.”
“He admits that he can get carried away with auction fever, and when he wants something, he has paid extraordinary sums well over the odds. “He is sometimes very enthusiastic in a sale, and it is not always clear who could be underbidding,” says one dealer.” The Art Newspaper reported.
Problems began however when it became unclear who Sheikh Saud was purchasing for — self or State. An investigation was opened by Qatari officials which led to the eventual dismissal of the Sheikh from his position as cultural minister in 2005.
Sheikh Saud died in London on November 9, 2014. Thus began the dispersal of his personal collection. This brings us back to the December 2021 sale at Christie’s. Five of the top ten African art lots from the sale were once in Sheikh Saud’s collection:
“We are very proud of the result achieved this year, Christie’s demonstrated its leadership and involvement in this category. An historical year with a total of €79 million (and 91 percent of lots sold), the highest annual total ever achieved at auction for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. We are delighted that collectors across categories have manifested strong interest and engagement with our curated sales and showed appreciation for its art historical importance.
While the Michel Périnet Collection has entered art market’s history, the remarkable results of the December auction show the strength of the market and underline the passionate expertise of our team, offering exceptional pieces. Sold for more than thrice its presale low estimate at €920,000, the rediscovered Baulé mask is a brilliant demonstration.”
How does the saying go? All predictions are false? But we’ll give it a go anyway.
Based on the trends from the 2021 winter sales, we predict that in 2022, auction houses will continue their wave of targeting collectors directly but there will be an increasingly symbiotic relationship between dealers, galleries and auction houses as all work in concert to identify interesting artworks and new collectors for those pieces.
The market will continue to soar but only if dealers and auction houses work to attract a new audience to this collecting field. We’ll see auctions houses and galleries make this collecting field fun again. Talks, dinners, parties, and other experiences will attract new potential collectors.
Headwinds will grow stronger as the restitution debate gathers ever more steam which will impact prices. The market will have to make it clear to new buyers that this is a field one can ethically collect in.
And maybe we’ll see a classic African art NFT pop up in a sale or two (we’re kind of hoping this one does not come true).