Saturday 14 April 2012

Attention: Auctions redefine art markets

By Tajudeen Sowole

(First published Tuesday, November 25, 2008)
GRADUALLY, change appears to be creeping onto the visual arts landscape as artists are seeking better value for their works, outside the regular outlets such as art galleries and dealers.

 And the alternative outlet is the good old art auction, so suggest recent developments in Europe and Nigeria. While it is just dawn for art auction in Nigeria, in the United Kingdom, U.K., what has been recorded as the biggest art sales of the century happened about two months before the former recorded its largest art sale in history.

As two auctions in Lagos, April and November 2008, involving 200 lots of about 50 artists recorded a total sale of N149 million (according to official figures released by a Lagos-based auction house, Arthouse Contemporary), 223 lots from British artist, Damien Hirst made a record sale of 111 million Pounds at one of the world's leading auction house, Sotheby's, last September.

According to Kavita Chellaram-led Arthouse Contemporary, "87 out of 97 lots were sold in April at N69m hammer price, and last week, November sale was N80m, N150, 000 at hammer price from 84 lots of total 103."

The art market is indeed getting more interesting as galleries,  dealers and artists are on the alert. Traditionally, the norms, over the ages would have works go through the galleries to gain popularity and energy to attract collection at auctions. But Hirst changed all that with his works, all done within a period of two years. 
Hirst, like most younger artists in Europe, according to sources, was unhappy with the rules in art marketing. After the success of his outing with Sotheby's, Hirst, a member of a group of artists known as Young British Artists, was quoted as saying, "if you don't like the rule, change it."
Yusuf Grillo's Blue Moon, Oil on Board (1966, 60 x 60 cm)

Aside the fact that art auction is just taking off in Nigeria, artists in this part of the world and their counterparts overseas appeared to be asking for more of the art booties from dealers and galleries alike. So, the commonality here is the new face, which art auction is likely to take in the West and Africa, as demonstrated by Hirst's adventure in London and Chellaram-led Arthouse Contemporary in Lagos.

Although a Hirst is yet to emerge among artists in Nigeria, solace is coming elsewhere as suggested by the two successful events of Arthouse Contemporary. However, Chellaram and her team are not alone in helping artists change the rule as those who lay claim to the first art auction, Nimbus Art Centre are set to hold another one on December 7, 2008. The group's event of 1999 titled Before The Hammer Falls is, contentiously, an 'informal' art auction.

On Monday, November 17, 2008, during the Private Preview and Champagne Night of ArtHouse, held at the Civic Centre, Victoria Island, Lagos, an aura of success of the last auction was felt even though it was two days ahead of the event. Top personalities in the art scenes such as leading art collectors, art gallery operators, artists of diverse breed, were stunned by the quality of works on display. This, as well as the prospects of the visual arts sub-sector of the nation's economy got the attention of renowned art historian, Prof. Ola Oloidi who delivered a brief speech at the standing room segment of that night.

72 hours later, the megabucks started rolling in as Yusuf Grillo beats record holder Bruce Onobrakpeya, just as another revelation from the younger generation of artists surfaced when Peju Alatise's oil work ranked among the big sales; it was a level playing field. In the future, artists, particularly the younger ones, could find auction more reliable than art galleries and dealers.

For an auction that was grossly under publicised, the response seen that night should be commended. However, inadequate publicity was a minus for the prospects of the art market as the opportunity to win new art collectors, particularly from the corporate sector might have been lost.

Between the galleries and the artists, terms of sales, according to sources, differ from one artist or gallery to another. The implication here is that prices at galleries may have to be adjusted to the current reality if artists would remain loyal to galleries and dealers. On the shape of things to come, one of the gallery owners and artist, Biodun Omolayo must have seen the signs on the wall when he cautioned that "with art auctions, galleries would have to re-strategise, it can't be business as usual."

Did we hear a suggestion, at one of the recent fora that any artists who does not belong to a particular professional group would not be represented by members of Art Galleries Association of Nigeria (AGAN)? Rule such as this and others would have to be reviewed, as art auctions could be a deciding factor. President of Guild of Professional Fine Artists of Nigeria (GFA), Edosa Ogiugo, few days after the event said, "the auction is telling us to up our games. We need the three; gallery, dealer and auction, but the results of the auction give artists confidence to go and renegotiate with our galleries and dealers."

Biodun Olaku, one of the artists whose works featured in the two events argued that it is neither here nor there. "For artists that partake of the auctions, either way, they have nothing to lose. Also the union between artists and galleries is guaranteed-it's a forced marriage of convenience. But the auction is a catalyst for further development of the art in Nigeria."

For gallery operator, Moses Ohiomokhare, art auctions are no threat to galleries, " it will only complement what the galleries are doing". He however agreed that "auctions help to find the true value of art works."

Peter Areh of Pendulum Art Centre, owners of Pendulum Gallery, Lekki, Lagos, argued that the results of the auction is not a reflection of the reality of the art market. He, for example, wondered how new artists got higher price than old masters. "The results are not the true reflection of what the artists actually worth. How can you explain that El Anatsui is worth less than Rom Isichei, for example? Anatsui's last sale abroad was about worth about N70 million. I think the bidders who bought works at the auction were not informed about what to buy. The way I understand auction is that, artists that are not common command higher prices than those you can get easily at galleries. In future, collectors would rather go to galleries shortly before an auction to get some artists and pay far less than coming to an auction."

Conducted by the same auctioneer U.K.-based John Dabney, the auction had Grillo's Blue Moon from the bidding price of N5.8m ended at hammer price of N8.8m. The asking price was N8 to 9.5m.

Ben Osawe's Untitled (B), wood, 229 cm (1992) came second at N5.8m while Uche Okeke's 1961 oil on board titled Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus, 84.5 cm x 12.5 cm was next at N4.750m after taking off from a bidding price of N2.250m. Joint work by Nike Okundaye and Tola Wewe, as well as David Dale made impressive sales too.

Anyone who knew the strength of Alatise's work before the auction would not be faulted to argue that at N1.2m, the acrylic work, Oritameta (Crossroads), 170 x 275 cm (an adaptation from her novel of the same title) was still undervalued. But because in art, an artist's signature and antecedence take preference over contents, Alatise, who is still in her early 30s, will have to wait a little while to be a Hirst, 43.

Alatise's Oritameta, a silhouetted three unidentified fleshy figures of women is art in every sense of it: content that keeps one in suspense with her impasto texture could harass the attention of a viewer. A trained architect, but self-thought artist, Alatise first presented the work during her solo exhibition of installation and paintings, Aramada, few months back.

Between Grillo and Onobrakpeya, the two auctions have confirmed that sometimes it is difficult to place the strength of a piece on the content, but the artist. When the lot, Blue Moon was brought forward for bidding, it looked so ordinary, paperweight, compared to what happened in April when Greater Nigeria 208.5 x 442.5 c, could not be moved from the spot where it was mounted, at the rear of the hall. In fact, bidders had to turn their faces to view the panel work of immense input. But at N9.2m, Onobrakpeya's Greater Nigeria was just N400, 000 higher than Grillo's Blue Moon of N8.8m, a difference that did not commiserate with the contents and sizes of the two works.

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