£4 million: The highest total ever achieved for a sale of modern and contemporary African art

Ben Enwonwu’s earliest masterpiece soars to £1.1M after thirteen-minute bidding battle – more than seven times above its pre-sale estimate

Ben Enwonwu, Christine, 1971. All images courtesy of the artists & Sotheby's.Ben Enwonwu, Christine, 1971. Oil on canvas, 76,3 x 61cm. All images courtesy of the artists & Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s fifth sale of Modern and Contemporary African Art, on the 15th of October 2019, surpassed pre-sale expectations to realise £4 million (pre-sale estimate: £1.9-2.8 million) – the highest total ever achieved for a sale in this category. The sale featured over 100 works from 56 artists across 20 countries (the highest number of countries represented in such a sale) and established nine new auction records. There was strong competition from across the globe, with participants from Central and North America, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

The sale was led by works from two 20th century masters of African modernism – Gerard Sekoto and Ben Enwonwu. Four bidders competed for Enwonwu’s enchanting Christine over the course of a thirteen-minute battle, pushing the final price to £1.1 million  – over seven times above the pre-sale high estimate (est. £100,000-150,000) to become the second-highest price for the artist at auction. Painted in Lagos in 1971, the work precedes the artist’s famously record-breaking portraits of the Nigerian princess Tutu, and had remained unseen in the sitter’s family home ever since. The family were unaware of the significance of the painting or the importance of the artist, until a chance ‘googling’ of the signature led them to Sotheby’s free Online Estimate Platform. The artist’s Africa Dances from 1970 also achieved £471,000 (est. 150,000-200,000). In total, ten works by Enwonwu were 100% sold to realise a combined total of £1.8 million.

Gerard Sekoto, Cyclists in Sophiatown, 1940.Gerard Sekoto, Cyclists in Sophiatown, 1940. Oil on canvas board, 30,4 x 40,3cm.
Mohamed Melehi, On Red No. 1, 1963.Mohamed Melehi, On Red No. 1, 1963. Acrylic on canvas, 122 x 100,5cm.

Forming the cover lot of this season’s sale catalogue, Gerard Sekoto’s  Cyclists in Sophiatown was painted in 1940 and draws attention to the harsh reality of the lives of black South Africans in the years leading up to apartheid. Within ten years, the artist had been exiled and the residents of Sophiatown forcibly removed. The work achieved £362,500 (est. £250,000-350,000).

A pioneer of modernism in Morocco, Mohamed Melehi’s abstract canvas, On Red No. 1 67, soared to £75,000 – over 10 times the pre-sale estimate (est. £6,000-8,000) [lot 67].

Youg star Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga proved once again that he’s one to watch when Duty of Memory sold for £62,500 (est. £25,000-35,000), and Influence sold for £50,000 (est. £25,000-35,000). Since Sotheby’s first offered the artist’s work in the inaugural Modern and Contemporary African Art sale of 2017, his record has been consecutively broken in their rooms four times, including the standing record of £81,250 set at Sotheby’s London in April 2019.

Widely-revered for not only depicting, but defining, the South African landscape, Jacob Hendrik Pierneef’s early painting, Summer Rain in the Bushveld from 1999, stormed past its high-estimate to achieve £162,500 (est. £100,000-150,000) [lot 91].

Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, Duty of Memory.Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, Duty of Memory. Acrylic and oil on canvas, 195,5 x 195,5cm.
Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, Summer Rain in the Bushveld, signed and dated "18".Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, Summer Rain in the Bushveld, signed and dated “18”. Oil on board, 90 x 141cm.

Records for nine artists – in lot order

Julien Sinzogan, Bois Caïmans et Erzuli: £16,250 (est. £10,000-15,000) [lot 36].

Ablade Glover, People: £27,500  (est. £15,000-20,000) [lot 48].

In his auction debut, Fathi Afifi Factory Machines in Grey realised £6,250  (est. £4,000-6,000) [lot 70].

Hussein Shariffe broke his auction record twice: Untitled (2003) fetched £20,000 (est. £12,000-18,000) before Songlines: For Bruce Chatwin (1990-92) set a new benchmark at £35,000 (est. £12,000-18,000) [lot 72 & 73].

Two works exceeded the previous record for Wosene Worke Kosrof when Root of Words III realised £40,000 (est. £25,000-35,000), and Moon and the Blue Goddess fetched £30,000  (est. £15,000-20,000) – double the pre-sale estimate [lot 76 & 78].

Peterson Kamwathi, Guantanamo Queue: £6,875 (est. £6,000-8,000) [lot 81].

Malangatana Ngwenya, Matalana: £27,500 (est. £10,000-15,000) [lot 82].

Igshaan Adams, Akbar: £18,750 (est. £15,000-20,000) [lot 99].

Cristiano Mangovo, Dia de Felicidade: £40,000 [lot 103].

Ablade Glover, People, 2016.Ablade Glover, People, 2016. Oil on canvas, 154 x 152,5cm.