Art for Art’s Sake No More, African Works Entice Investors

Updated on
Yemisi Shyllon
Nigerian art collector Yemisi Shyllon at his home in Lagos. Photographer: Chris Kay/Bloomberg

In his two-acre compound walled off from the chaotic din of the Nigerian commercial hub of Lagos, Yemisi Shyllon is struggling to fit the country’s largest private art collection in his 20 rooms.

The 63-year-old Yoruba prince, who’s been collecting since he studied engineering at the University of Ibadan, has more than 7,000 works crammed into his house and leafy garden, home to porcupines, a catfish pond and free roaming peacocks. As demand and prices for contemporary African art continue to rise, Shyllon is now worried about keeping thieves out.

Spurred by a wealthy elite and increased recognition of Africa’s artists, average lot prices at Bonhams have increased about fivefold to $50,000 since the London-based auction house, founded in 1793, started specialized sales of contemporary African art eight years ago. Shyllon now plans to establish a private art museum in Lagos.

“African art is a bull market and one’s investment is liable to return a handsome profit, and certainly the past eight years have demonstrated that,” Giles Peppiatt, a director at Bonhams, said in a presentation at the Alara African luxury store in Lagos, designed by architect David Adjaye. “Nigeria has certainly led the way in this revolution with the artists and prices that have dominated the results coming from Africa.”

After a client consigned works by Nigerian artist and sculptor Ben Enwonwu eight years ago, Bonhams put them in a sale of regular paintings, and one sold for more than 20,000 pounds ($30,670), Peppiatt said.

‘Lightbulb Moments’

It was “one of those lightbulb moments” that got Bonhams to start Africa-only auctions, he said. About 50 percent of the buyers are from the continent.

Nigerians increasingly see art as a “status symbol and investment,” Shyllon said in an interview in his presentation room filled with paintings and sculptures. “It will get much, much bigger and then it becomes dangerous for people like me to keep works of art in my house.”

Along with a rise in rich patrons from Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy and oil producer, advances in technology, media and the Internet have helped broaden the audience, Jean Fritts, a senior director of African and Oceanic Art at Sotheby’s, said in an interview in London.

Sotheby’s is considering holding specialized African art auctions as its total annual African and Oceanic sales have risen to $84 million in 2014 from about $4 million two decades ago, Fritts said. Bonhams set the record price for a modern African artist sale at 3.04 million pounds for South African artist Irma Stern’s Arab Priest in 2011.

Technological Change

Technology “has changed things dramatically, because artists who live in remote areas have access to information, to other artists, to other galleries,” said Elisabeth Lalouschek, artistic director at London’s October Gallery, which held its first African artist show in 1982. “If I want to look somebody up I can find them.”

In Nigeria, regular auctions have been running since 2008, with almost 20 sales trading a total of about 1.2 billion naira ($6 million), Shyllon said.

In the wider market, contemporary art, along with apartments in cities such as New York and London, currently offers the best way to store wealth, Laurence D. Fink, chairman of BlackRock Inc., the world’s biggest asset manager, told a conference in Singapore in April.

‘Cutthroat’ Industry

While demand is growing, the industry is “cutthroat,” said Maria Varnava, the director of London’s Tiwani Contemporary gallery, which has been exhibiting African and diaspora artists since opening in 2011. “You’re targeting a very small market, so you’re all basically fighting for the same collector base, so that makes you ruthless.”

Compared with other art markets, the prices contemporary African works attract are still modest, with total gross sales at Bonhams in the past two years generating about 1.6 million pounds, said Bonhams’ Peppiatt.

“That in terms of the art market is tiny,” he said. Bonhams had 481.1 million pounds in total “hammer” sales in 2013.

Other challenges in religiously conservative countries such as Nigeria are the cultural battles faced by artists and collectors in promoting local art, said Shyllon.

Worshiping Artworks

After being confronted by a number of “clever people” telling him he was worshiping his artworks, Shyllon installed a large cross at the front of his house to indicate his Christian faith.

“There’s a difference between religion and culture,” he said. “I’ve seen people who have said these drums, these carvings are demonic, that there is evil in them by virtue of their not being informed enough. It’s getting worse.”

Over a breakfast of garri, a local porridge dish made from cassava, and peanuts, Shyllon said many in Nigeria see art as a “business for riff-raffs.”

“But it’s changing and I tell you why: the monetization value,” he said. “It’s going to appreciate and then they will sell it.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE