Auction market seeks stronger ethics, values

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Bruce Onobrakpeya’s ‘Greater Nigeria’ (Foil and Ivories, mounted on plywood, water 2007), and sold for N9.2m, Nigerian record, at 2008 auction.

Despite exposing huge potentials of African arts, Nigeria’s secondary market still has quite some loose ends to tighten.

After Mrs Kavita Chellaram-New Arthouse Contemporary made history as West Africa’s premier auction house, in 2008, the secondary art market space opened up.

TKMG, a joint auction house by Terra Kulture and Mydrim Gallery led by Mrs Bolanle Austen-Peters and Mrs. Sinmidele Adesanya came next.

And in the last three years, Sogal Auction, from Rahman Akar-led Signature Beyond Gallery has been consistent.

In May 2008, the unprecedented happened in the art market, when a set of panel, titled, ‘Greater Nigeria’, by Bruce Onobrakpeya, attracted the sum of N9.2 million hammer price at the Arthouse’s maiden auction.

It was the highest amount recorded in the night’s sales of about N100 million. The auction held at Civic Centre, Victoria Island, Lagos.

Fast-forward to 2018, just two works by Ben Enwonwu (1917-1994) made as much total sales recorded for nearly 100 lots sold by the same Arthouse 10 years ago.

Excerpts from the results of the June 2018 auction read: From 105 lots on sales, a total of N233,062,500 million was recorded.

In fact, Enwonwu’s ‘Anyanwu’, a bronze sculpture (circa 1975), sold for N59,800,000, just as another work by the same artist, titled ‘Negritude’, a watercolour on paper from 1990, sold for N46,000,000.

Using economic index, the Nigerian secondary art market has not done badly in its 10 years existence.

While most of the 10 years period has been impressive – in commercial value – there were days of low performances.

For example, in 2015, a survey called Nigeria Art Market Report, published by Foundation for Contemporary and Modern Visual Arts (FCMVA), noted the country’s secondary art market was declining.

“The value of artworks sold at auction in Nigeria declined for the second consecutive year from $1.77 million in 2014 to $1.37 million in 2015,” the report explained.

Basically, art auction, which defines the secondary market, is more of commercial than critical appreciation of creative contents produced by the artists.

It is, therefore, crucial to add the worth of the country’s entire art market, yearly, in tracking the 10 years performance of the auctions.

Observers have estimated that close to 30 per cent of Nigeria’s entire art market of yearly N500 million come from the auction houses.

However, over 20 per cent of Nigeria’s art market value may be coming from the two Arthouse’s yearly auctions alone.

In the last 10 years, Arthouse has sold over two billion naira worth of art, auctioning 1,750 lots, a statement from the auctioneer disclosed.

Beyond the digits, there are concerns about ethics and values.

In a country with such a young art auction market, the debate about criteria used in selecting of artworks is always divided between artists and other stakeholders.

Also, the issue of who values what keeps recurring just as the auction houses appear to base their judgments on clients’ and collectors’ behaviours.

“No doubt, the auctions have added value to both art and artists in Nigeria, while opening up new ideas and debates about art in these parts,” Prof. Krydz Ikwuemesi of Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria (UNN), Nsukka, noted.

He, however, pointed out the need to avoid recycling of same artists.

“Those in charge must find ways of injecting new names into the auctions from time to time.”

Ikwuemesi insisted in the need to seek new frontiers, “if the auctions would remain exciting that people could look forward to.”

On the relevance of Nigeria’s secondary art market as index for rating the country’s visual art space, the art historian argued, “more and more, the auctions should be positioned to become a major defining factor in the art field here as in other places.”

Duke Asidere, one of Nigeria’s top contemporary artists, also agreedto Ikwuemesi’s proposition.

He said, “the auction houses have opened up the art market.” Asidere, whose painting was among the sales at the maiden edition of Arthouse auction in 2008, however, would like to see an improvement in the selecton of lots. “The selection has to be more objective,” he said.

Asidere echoed increasing concerns about how the rich and long provenance essence of art auction is being eroded by auction houses.

“The works must have some history; art that must have been exhibited and not those produced a few weeks to auction event.”

Without a doubt, the art auction houses in Nigeria engage experts in selections of the works.

But Asidere would like to see an improvement in the inputs of such “researchers and curatorial expertise.”

Valuing art is one of the most contentious aspects of the Nigerian secondary market.

Asidere advised on the consistence of valuing art within the context of global market.

Worth of the same art should not vary from one geographical location to another, he argued.

“The prices must match the ones artists have received for their works in other countries.”

To energise the Nigerian art market, he insisted that artists should not reserve their best works for foreign market alone.

“Artists should put in their strongest and most engaging pieces.”

While quite a lot of people rely on art auction as to rate the worth of an artist or art, Jess Casttelote, co-author of ‘Collecting Art: A Handbook’, disagreed.

“Though, I think auctions are not always the best indicators of artistic value, they are useful and play increasingly important role.”

He explained that as prices are made public, they are “also advantageous for the operation of the art market.”

Be that as it may, as the second decade begins, the auction houses will do better by considering new options like stronger ethics and values in the art space.