Sotheby’s Bets Big on African Art, Launching a New Department in London

Bonhams veteran Hannah O'Leary heads up the new department.

Hannah O'Leary. Photo courtesy Sotheby's.

Sotheby’s will institute a department dedicated to modern and contemporary African art, aiming to tap into a growing market for art from the continent. Bonhams veteran Hannah O’Leary will head the new department, which will stage its first sale in spring 2017.

“There’s enormous untapped potential in this market, and together we are perfectly poised to explore it to the full,” O’Leary says in the house’s announcement of the new department.

The news comes amid bullish estimations of the market for African art, including a report published in 2015 and edited by Paris art dealer Jean Philippe Aka. Among other data supporting the optimistic assessment, the report points out that the total of Bonhams sale of African art were up by nearly 50 percent from the previous year.

Bonhams is the only other major art auctioneer with an African art department, and boasts a 2011 high of $18 million of sales in that area, including the $5 million fetched for Irma Stern‘s painting Arab Priest in March 2011. Stern joins artists like El Anatsui, Julie Mehretu, William Kentridge, and Marlene Dumas among the top 100 African artists in Aka’s report.

The New York art world has also turned its eyes to the continent. The Armory Show fair highlighted 14 dealers from the continent in the “Focus” section of its 2016 outing, and this year also saw the second local outing of the 1:54 fair, devoted to African art.

O’Leary inaugurated South African art sales at Bonhams, where she started in 2006. The house organized its first South African art sale the following year, and its debut auction of modern and contemporary African art in 2009. After becoming head of the department in 2010, O’Leary oversaw a March 2011 sale of South African art that, according to Sotheby’s, was the highest-grossing auction in that area, totaling over £8.7 million ($12.8 million at today’s exchange rate).

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