News reports and economic analysis, local and international, have shown Nigeria is deep in recession for the first time in twenty-five years. Contraction shrank by 2.2% in the third quarter of 2016 and the last quarter has not been any better. With reports indicating a further decline of the economy in the next year, the Nigerian art market which has been reportedly growing in the last five years now faces a real enemy; the situation of the economy. Will sales get better or worse after this last auction at Arthouse Contemporary, which has consistently done quite well in its auctions over the years?

Last month when the auction house held its 17th auction of Modern and Contemporary Art, it netted a total of N114,760,000 under  UK-based auctioneer John Dabney. This fell slightly below an estimated low of N191,150,000. By selling 66 of its 97 lots, the auction house secured a sale of 68 percent. It also sold 3 of 5 charity lots donated by artists, proceeds of which go in support of Arthouse Foundation, a non-profit organization that aims to encourage the creative development of contemporary art in Nigeria.

Speaking at the Stanbic IBTC’s Fine Art and the Acts 2016 gala night, Kavita Chelleram, CEO Arthouse Contemporary Ltd, said that a 68 percent sale came as a surprise because they had not expected to sell as much. Selling as much as 50 percent would have been regarded a huge success in light of the current economic recession. Many of those who attended the auction shared a similar sentiment.

With the current issues plaguing the country’s economy and many not spending as much as they once did only about two or three years ago, it would seem like this is not the year for too many art auctions. But keeping with its tradition which begun in 2007, Arthouse Contemporary Ltd held its second auction of modern and contemporary art for the year, the 4th auction they have held this year and the 17th since commencement. Remarkably, they have recorded higher sales than the other auction houses in Lagos in 2016. The other auction houses, Signature Beyond’s Social Art Auction and TKMG Auction House held single auctions in March and May 2016 respectively with sales slightly below 50% recorded.

On the international scene, it is no longer news that there has been an increasing appreciation for art from Nigeria and its Diasporan artists. Both modern and contemporary works from the West African region, Nigeria in particular, are doing very well at international art auctions. Bonhams Africa Now auctions are good examples of the explosion of interest in modern and contemporary art from Africa (except for the last Africa Now Contemporary African Art Auction held in October), with a particular interest in works by artists El Anatsui, Ben Enwonwu, Yusuf Grillo, Peju Alatise, Yinka Shonibare, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Ibrahim El-Salahi among others. A recent example is Nigerian-born, US-based artist, Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s Drown (2012) setting a new record when it sold at $1,092,500 at Sotheby’s New York Contemporary Art Evening sale, making three times its high estimate of $200,000 -300,000.

At the recent Arthouse auction, the highest selling work of the evening was El-Anatsui’s Ahe (2016) which sold at the hammer price of N16 million and N18,400,000 ($ 60,328) with buyer’s premium, just shy of its pre-sale low estimate of N17 million. It was closely followed by Ben Enwonwu’s Crowd Scene (1951) which sold N13 million at the hammer price and ₦14,950,000 ($ 40,016) with buyer’s premium, on the mark of its pre-sale low estimate. Enwonwu still being an auction favourite, 4 of 5 of his works sold at the auction. However, none of the sold works went above the pre-sale estimates. Three sold just on the mark of the low estimate and one, Remi, a fiberglass sculpture sold at N2,400,000, sold lower than its N3,000,000 – 4,000,000 estimates.

This was the general trend at the sale evening, with most bids lulling around its low estimate, and several others selling below estimate. Only seven works in total sold over or just on the mark of the high estimate. A notable lot is Ndidi Emiefele’s Mess With the Brigade (2016) which sold at N1,900,000 slightly above the high estimate of N1,800,000. Emiefele’s work has steadily increased in value from one auction to the next, almost always selling above its estimated value. Apparently, there is a demand for her work in contemporary art circles.

Also selling above estimate was David H. Dale’s Children at Play (2013) sold at N3,700,000 above its estimate of N2,800,000-3,500,000, Olumide Onadipe’s Famous Savage (2016) sold at N1,000,000 above its estimated N500,000 – 900,000, and Mavua Lessor’s Another Morning (Fishing Village Series) (2008) sold at N800,000 above its estimate of N400,000 – N700,000.

Of the works that were unsold, it was interesting to note that contemporary artist, Rom Isichei, who is usually in demand at these auctions did not garner enough bids to make a sale.

A decline in art sales due to the unstable economy is not all bad news for the contemporary artist. With the cost of works from masters skyrocketing, many collectors and buyers either cannot afford to or would rather not spend a fortune on such works. Collectors may, however, turn to buying the lesser-priced works from contemporary artists in the hopes that they will increase in value over time.

Without question, a 68 percent art auction sale in this economy is a success. It’ll be interesting to see what sales will look like in 2017 in the face of expected further decline in the economy. Will artists and collectors turn to international secondary art markets instead? Or will the Nigerian art market hold its fort and weather through an unfavorable economic terrain? Only time will tell.

Featured image: Ben Enwonwu, Crowd Scene (1951) | Source: Arthouse Contemporary Auction Catalog