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Introduction: Global modern & Contemporary African Art Market in 2016

The segment that resists the art market crisis

The global market of modern and contemporary African art performed strongly in 2016 with a sell-through rate of 72% in a morose context of the international art market and the slowingdown of African economies. This segment proved to be an exception.

This vitality was led by modern art 1 with a sell-through rate of 76% and 55% in value of the total amount of sales, reaching US$23.3 million. Contemporary art2 , the majority of acquired works being by artists appearing at auction for the first time, had a sell-through rate of 66%. The works sold beyond their high estimates represented 58% in value of the total number of sales during the year, including 66.9% for modern art and 33% for contemporary art.

african art sell through rate
1- Artists whose birth range from 1850 through 1939
2- Artists who were born after 1940
Bids that exceeded the symbolic threshold of US$1 million rose by 200%, including 50% for modern art and 50% for contemporary art. Among the buoyant examples was the extremely mediatised Bowie/Collector sale organised by Sotheby’s in London on 10-11 November 2016 saw all 17 works by African artists find buyers, the works totalling £341,875 (with buyer premium), equivalent to US$425,504 seven times over the pre-sale estimate.
Arthouse Contemporary, the Nigerian auction house in Lagos, went from having two annual sales in 2015 to three in 2016.
There are several reasons for these results, the first being the strong potential in artistic and market value of the works proposed in galleries and at auctions. Secondly, the huge direct and indirect investments, such as institutional, commercial 28% unsold and non-commercial projects and exhibitions, mainly in western countries as well as new structural initiatives in Africa. The buyer base has also increased. Furthermore, reference prices have recently been consolidated: the average range of estimates of works proposed for auction were between US$7,140 and US$9,650 for modernist works and between US$7,420 and US$10,260 for contemporary art. This represents a progression of 60% and 70% respectively over seven years.
We are witnessing the first effects of the current structural changes that were observed in our previous reports. This market is at the end of a long cycle that could be defined as being “rudimentary” and right at the start of a new modernity. The trend is growing and its rhythm will be defined by how actors on the African continent organise themselves by becoming meaningfully and clearly involved in the economy and art market, how actors in classical African arts (African statuaries and masks) control their market, and the savoir-faire by the new generation of actors involved in this segment.
Strauss & Co, based in Johannesburg, South Africa, is the leading auction house for the total amount of works sold with 31% in value and 57% of lots.
London held the most important place in the market in 2016, considering the number of operators in our study that organised sales (40% of the total), the number of proposed lots (2.9% of the total) and of sold lots (28.1% and US$11.9 million in the year) and institutional and commercial exhibitions. We’ll see how this pans out during the post-Brexit period.
Three factors can explain the attractiveness of the British capital for modern and contemporary African art: its number one place in finance; its appeal to African creators and investors, mainly from South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana; and the established and prosperous African diaspora involved in artistic/cultural initiatives and institutions, such as the Tate.
For players based on the African continent, the evolution of the sector is dazzling. But it is not felt in the same way by those from western countries due to differences in expectations and costs. At public sales in Africa, Europe and the US, records have become commonplace and galleries on the three continents remain in the same dynamic.
One of the pillars of this segment’s improvement is the African diaspora. In this new report, we have decided to scrutinize its contribution, importance and impact because for a long time it has been active in making African art the segment with the biggest growth potential in the art market.