The Nigerian art industry is experiencing a new wave of young collectors who see art as a safe store of wealth. They are discreetly acquiring the works of new contemporary artists and making art collection a real deal writes FUNKE OSAE-BROWN.
His office is housed in a modest building off Admiralty way Lekki, an upscale neighbourhood in Lagos. I honked at the security man on duty. He walked up to me asking whom I want to see.
“Mr. Anthony,” I answered. He returned to the window of his small office. He picked the intercom as he furtively dialled a number. His forehead burrowed in sweat, glittered in the mid-day sun. He dropped the receiver, dipped his hand in his pocket. The gate opened slowly as he pressed the little remote control in his hand. My car was safely parked.
The whizzing sound from the air condition welcomed me into the waiting area. A young woman in her early 20s told me the boss had been waiting for me. I took in the environment as she walked me into her boss’ office. Large painting adorned the walls. Some names on them were familiar some others were largely unknown.
“Great to have you here,” Anthony said to me. He motioned me to a seat. His office is tastefully furnished in the modern minimalist style. A large colourful painting hanging on the white wall, the texture and tone borrowed mostly from Abiodun Olaku.
‘Is that an Olaku,” I asked him. ‘No, it isn’t,” he responds laughing. ‘Not sure I can afford an Olaku or an Oshinowo,” he added. ‘They are too expensive for an aspiring collector like me.”
No matter how sizeable his art collection is, Anthony has joined the growing class of collectors in Nigeria. At least he buys five works every year since he discovered the goldmine of the art collection in 2009. He has more than 50 works in his collection.
Anthony is one of the many new aspiring collectors who are discreetly acquiring the works of new contemporary artists that are not yet well known in the art industry but whose pieces are something to write home about. They are banking on art as an alternative means of investment which they hope will yield huge returns in another 10 to 20 years when their collection will have appreciated in value.
“I like the works of new contemporary artists who don’t exaggerate their lines, colours or figures,” explains Anthony. “They are bringing new perspectives to their forms. Their works stand out for me and I collect them now that they are yet to make a name. By the time they become big, my collection would have doubled in value.”
Young executives like Anthony now see art collection as a big deal in an era when investments in oil and other commodities are unsure. In a bid not to lose money, they acquire as many works as possible for safe keeping. They now see art as a safe store of wealth. Investing in the art for this generation of collectors is not just about using the extra money they don’t need to acquire art but deliberately setting aside a part of their income to buy art.
The rank of young collectors is swelling. Ade Olaiya also recently bought a 2000 abstract painting by Okon Y, a former student of Yaba Tech. A work he describes as brilliant in texture and presentation. He also has in his collection pieces from Nduka Omoeife.
“I love Omoife’s works because he paints real life images. He is brilliant with portraits. His use of watercolour is brilliant. I have about five of his paintings and I hope to acquire more. I was told by an expert that his painting I bought a few years ago would have appreciated by 30 percent of the price I bought it in 2014,” says Olaiya who have 20 works in his growing collection.
Do these new collectors have any significant impact on the art market? Kavita Chellarams, CEO, Arthouse Contemporary believes they do. Her discovery of this growing segment of the art market moved her to start the affordable art auction a couple of years ago. It was a timely response to this growing segment of the art market. The first affordable auction made a record sale of N31 million in spite of the 2016 economic downturn, an appreciable fraction of Arthouse bi-annual auction. Each work of art in the Affordable Art Auction was priced below N500, 000, casting a wider net to showcase a broader scope of contemporary artists and to encourage young collectors’ participation.
“There has been an explosion of interest in contemporary African art in recent years,” said Chellarams, in a statement before the auction began, “and there is a tremendous potential for investment. With the African art market at an unprecedented rise, The Affordable Art Auction aims to engage emerging markets and the rise of a new collector base. Arthouse Contemporary particularly aims to focus on the network of local collectors to create a more sustainable and self-sufficient market.”
With a total of 116 lots from leading modern and contemporary artists, 72% of the lots were sold at the auction. The top sales at the auction were: Rom Isichei’s 2011 piece titled Rejuvenation, an oil on board that sold for NGN 1,322,500 ($6,613); this was followed by Ben Osawe’s Mask (1985), a gouache on paper that sold for NGN 920,000 ($4,600); and Kolade Oshinowo’s The Family (2009), an oil on board that sold for NGN 782,000 ($3,910).
New collectors are contributing in no little measure to the total art sales at auctions in the country. In its eight years of existence, Arthouse Contemporary through its bi-annual auction has made a total sale of N1.186 billion.
An industry analyst said this figure shows a steady growth that the Nigeria art market has been experiencing in the last ten years which was largely dominated by older collectors, who still love to collect works by master artists.
Modupe Ogunlesi, CEO, Adam and Eve who recently launched The Content, a bi-annual exhibition, said those who mostly buy from her exhibition are not the regular collectors.
“Ninety percent of those who buy from us are not the usual collectors. I look at the young collectors, they don’t usually have the money to pay because the older artists are expensive. They have other things to spend their money on. It is a question of disposable income,” she explained.
Ogunlesi further explained that she often encouraged older artists to make works that are affordable to the younger generations of collectors. “Five of the miniatures by Bruce Onobrakpeya were all gone by the first week of our maiden edition of The Content. The miniatures were more affordable. It is another way the young generation will remember the masters.”
In addition, part of what Ogunlesi thinks appeals to a new generation of collectors, is the subject matter of the art. If the artist does not focus on an interesting subject matter that will appeal to the young collectors, it could be a great turn-off.
“For one of our exhibitions, Juliet Ezenwa, one of the artists we featured brought many paintings with masks as the subject matter. I like her style of painting, though. I told her to bring works with more interesting subjects which I believed will appeal to new collectors. She agreed. And all her pieces were sold out.” She added that the basis for buying art is always along the line of what interest the collector.
At auctions, the story is slightly different as works of masters are always in demand hence they are always reoccurring every year.
“All the masters’ works are all-star sales,” said Nana Sonoiki, manager Arthouse Contemporary. “I think we have progressed and more quality works are coming out, both from the artists and private collectors. We have a standard and we cannot go below that standard. The older artists are always in high demand, that’s why they are reoccurring.”
According to her, auctions are always known as a market where the rare piece of works is sold. Works on display at auctions are not the kind one sees in galleries; therefore the pricing is always competitive. “With an auction, people want a special feeling with what they buy. People want a work that is rare, one that they can’t get anywhere or at any exhibition. It is time to begin to teach collectors to part with older works and get new ones. People don’t want to part with their millions and get works they can get at any gallery,” she explained further.
The market for Nigerian visual art is not only the toast of collectors locally but also internationally. Giles Peppiatt, the art specialist responsible for creating an international market for Contemporary African art, through Bonhams, an auction house based in London, who spoke at Alara Contemporary Design Store, Lagos, said Bonhams’ decision to start specialist African art sales in Europe paid off almost immediately with the first sale totalling £1.5 million as the auctions were grossing £10 million.
“People regularly ask how we have done this,” he said. “How is it that works by African artists which sold for figures around £10,000 ten years ago now go for hundreds of thousand pounds? We have set world records for all major artists in this field: Ben Enwonwu; Yusuf Grillo, El Anatsui, Kolade Oshinowo, Uche Okeke the list goes on and on.”
Peppiat said the works of Nigerian artistes have led the way in this revolution with artists and prices that have dominated the results coming out of Africa as collectors are appreciating the potentials of African art as a good investment.
“What we continue to see is a new ‘Scramble for Africa’; no longer for land, gold or diamonds, but for art. The scramble I am talking about, is a rather different kind of tussle, one that is making art a viable occupation for artists across Africa, bringing hope to communities in many of its 54 nations. It is a new development taking the message of African ingenuity to the wider world – a rather different message the kind the world has grown used to hearing from Africa. It has been our very great privilege to play a small part in taking that message to the wider art market.”
Some of the record sales of Nigerian artistes in London include Ben Enwonwu’s ‘The Mirror sculptures’ sold for £361,250 (N108.4 million) while El Anatsui’s ‘New World Map’ sold for £541,250 (N162.4 million). Yusuf Grillo’s ‘African woman with Gele’, Uche Okeke’s ‘Motherhood’ and Kolade Oshinowo’s ‘Sisters’ sold for £80,500 (N24.2 million), £51,650 (N15.5 million) £43,250 (N13 million) respectively.
Sonoiki said there are many factors responsible for the explosive growth of the Nigerian art market in the country. Some of these factors are: the quality of works coming out of the country, the creativity of the artists has improved greatly.
In addition to these factors is the shifting taste of clients has also been a driving force in the kind of works offered at auctions. Hence at the 2012 auctions by Arthouse Contemporary, there was a mixture of contemporary and old works, giving collectors many options. This also shows how Nigerian art is changing, as more works are coming into the market for all to see.
However, Sonoiki observed that in another eight years, there should be more transparency in terms of pricing. “In another eight years, I see the market become more transparent in terms of pricing. I see more creative works being produced and I see more people collecting Nigerian works more than ever before,” she added.
Simi Ogunsanya, managing director, and founder, Mydrim Gallery, who is also one of the organisers of the annual Terra Kulture arts auction, explained that auctioned artworks are collected from different sources. “Typically, at auction, we are looking for rare old works,” she explains. “These are usually in the hands of collectors. We have a mix of sources, so artists constitute one of the sources of works for auctions.”
“Old collectors are looking for new things,” said Sonoiki. “Now is the most exciting of times for Nigerian art. There’s a big buy coming for Nigerian works. There is so much attention for upcoming artists, hence we have seen a progress on the quality of their works, hence they are included in our auction.”