Chasing Africa's most expensive art ever; 2014 was hot with a rare mask fetching $4.4m

Sotheby's France achieved a new record in 2014 for its African & Oceanic Art, bringing in nearly $30.9 million - a record in the category.

THE Contemporary African Art Fair will expand to New York this year May 15-17, following two successful editions in London, it was announced Monday.

Founded by Moroccan-born Touria El Glaoui, the fair was first staged at London arts venue Somerset House in 2013. It might well confirm that the market is beginning to truly warm up to African art.

In December 2014, Sotheby’s France achieved a new record for its African & Oceanic Art department when final sales raked in €12 million ($14.26 million), bringing the 2014 total to nearly €26 million ($30.9 million) - a record in this category.

One lot bolstered the final auction; the Muminia Lega mask, a previously-unseen masterpiece drove the final hammer price to €3,569,500 ($4.4 million), the second highest price in history for an African mask.

Every year African art rakes in millions in auction rooms across the world, keeping collectors on their toes, eagerly vying against museums. From abstract painters to wood carvings, the demand is staggering though often limited to “primitive” African art or pieces intertwined with historical or social narrative.

Here are a few examples of some African art that have raked in the most bids:

Senufo Female statue

In November 2014 the African art collection of ambitious art collector, Myron Kunin, sold for a whopping $41.6 million at Sotheby’s in New York. The prize piece in the collection was an extremely rare Senufo Female Statue. The piece shattered the previous world record when it sold for $12 million. The Cote d’Ivoirian statue was carved by an artist known as the Master of Sikasso and is one of only five Senufo figures of its kind.

The Teacher

In 2005, Marlene Dumas’ piece “The Teacher”, a forbidding portrait taken from a class picture from her childhood in South Africa, sold for $3.3 million. The provocative piece is clearly informed by the politics of her early surroundings - the 60-year-old artist was raised during Apartheid in South Africa.

Construction of the Suez Canal

The Construction of the Suez Canal is a watercolour and gouache masterpiece created by Abdul Hadi El-Gazzar, one of the most important figures of the Egyptian Modern art movement. Executed in 1965, it sold for $1 million at a Christie’s auction in Dubai in 2014.

Bahora Girl

In 2010, Bahora Girl, a painting by South African artist Irma Stern, sold for £2.37 million (approximately $3.59 million) at Bonhams auction house in London. The painting is from Stern’s time in Zanzibar, where she was powerfully affected by the beauty of the local Indian women. This was one of many of her pricey pieces born out of inspiration from these travels. In 2011 Stern’s painting titled Two Arabs was the highest price ever for a painting sold in South Africa, selling for R21.17 million (approximately $1.8 million). In 2012 another of her paintings, of a distinguished Omani Arab man, title Arab, sold for R17.2 million ($1.46 million).

Fang ngil mask

In 2006, a celebrated 19th century mask by the Gabonese Fang people fetched more than $7.5 million at auction in Paris. The Ngil (sometimes referred to as the gorilla mask) masks were worn by men of the same name during the initiation of new members and the persecution of wrong-doers.The mask, which is said to have inspired artist Pablo Picasso, brought in four times its estimated price of $1.9 million.

Fang Mabea Statue

In 2014, a unique Fang Mabea statue produced in Cameroon in the early 19th century became one of the most valuable pieces of ethnographic art ever sold. The lot sold for €4.35 million ($5.17 million). The statue was previously owned by Felix Feneon and Jacques Kerchache, two very important collectors and critics who fought for greater recognition of African art in Europe.

Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation (2001)

Sold for $4.6 million at Christie’s New York in 2013, this painting is by Ethiopia-born Julie Mehretu, an artist best known for her densely layered abstract paintings. Despite spending most of her life in the US, Mehretu has maintained her ties with Africa. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and did a junior year abroad at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal.

Les Chadoufs

In 2010 Les Chadoufs, a painting by Mahmoud Said which acts as a powerful metaphor for an Egyptian Renaissance, sold for $2 million, becoming the most expensive work of art by an Arab artist ever to be auctioned by Christie’s Dubai.

Reliquaire Nkundu

In 2012, a wooden African sculpture from the north-west Mbandaka region of the Democratic Republic of Congo sold for €2.69 million (approximately $3.5 million) at the Christie’s auction house in Paris. The piece was one of the key sculptures from the famous collection of the Belgian painter Jean Willy Mestach for nearly 60 years.

Finally, there are a few art works that, though they did not rake in the big bucks, are important to mention for their impact on the auction room. A conversation on African art and auction sales would be tasteless without them:

Self-portrait (1947)

Pre-eminent modernist painter, Gerard Sekoto, was one of South Africa’s most critically acclaimed artists. Possibly his most famous work, Self-Portrait, sold for £117,600 (about $178,676) at an auction at Bonhams in London in May 2006. Even though this amount may not be as high as some other individual pieces on this list, Sekoto must be recognised as he remains the best-performing black South African artist in auction sales and is also recognised as the pioneer of black South African Art.

New World Map tapestry

In 2012, Bonhams achieved a world record for the Ghanaian artist, El Anatsui, with a huge woven tapestry of flattened bottle caps, titled New World Map which sold for £541,250 ($850,544) in London. One of the world’s foremost contemporary artists, Anatsui’s work draws on African cultures and is particularly concerned with the erosion of inherited traditions by external forces.

Gold Spotted Leopard and Friend The Songbird

In 2010 the world record price for an East African painting was set at $51,079 when this “Tingatinga” piece by the late Tanzanian Rajabu Chiwaya was sold at an auction in Paris by Artcurial.

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