Why is African art so popular

Why is African art so popular in the UK?

Giles Peppiatt, Director of the South African Art Department of Bonhams, addressed the question of why there has been such a huge global rise in value of South African art in recent years at the Irma Stern Museum in Cape Town

Why is African art so popular

Recently, Giles Peppiatt spoke about the explosion of value in South African art to a group of 22 arts journalists at the Irma Stern Museum in February.

“What we continue to see is a new ‘Scramble for Africa’. It’s no longer for land, gold or diamonds but for art. I say this advisedly as I stand here at the Irma Stern Museum, almost in the shadow of Cecil John Rhodes, who led another scramble for Africa. The scramble I am talking about, is a rather different kind of tussle, one that is making art a viable occupation for artists across Africa, bringing hope to communities in many of its 54 nations. It is a new development taking the message of African ingenuity to the wider world – a rather different message the kind the world has grown used to hearing from Africa. It has been our very great privilege to play a small part in taking that message to the wider art market.”

Bonhams decision to start specialist SA art sales in Europe back in 2006 paid off almost immediately with the first sale totalling £1.5 million. Soon the auctions were grossing £10 million and were achieving numerous world records. Currently it holds world records for all major South African artists.

How have Bonhams done this? How is it that works by Irma Stern which sold for figures around £100,000 ten years ago now go for millions? How is it that Tretchikoff who was seen as a mark of kitsch taste is now selling for hundreds of thousands, and Gerard Sekoto who fled the country to die in poverty in Paris has work that reach auction prices of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

To understand the answer one has to remember that South African art had not really been seen in London or on the international market before, and certainly had not been marketed in such a prestigious manner with all the attendant events, such as reception and dinners associated with auctions.  Bonhams found that international collectors were delighted to view these works and even more delighted to purchase the best examples for what they perceived to reasonable prices.

In international terms the best examples of South African art were very good value. So when the auction house offered this work to those with deeper pockets they found an enthusiastic response Once it became common knowledge that the highest prices were being paid in London, many collectors around the world and in South Africa were keen to take advantage of this price differential.

The fact is that modern and contemporary African art is today one of the hottest properties on the art block. Africa is the new China when it comes to art. When the Tate, the Smithsonian and other similar institutions start openly acquiring Contemporary African Art, then one knows that something strange and wonderful has occurred and that real change is in the air.

The Romans (in fact it was Pliny the Elder) had a phrase for this:  “Ex Africa semper aliquid novi”.  It means, there is always something new out of Africa.  Today that new thing is art.

The scramble is to acquire this art and the educated view in the capitals of the world is that South African and African Art is a bull market, with one’s investment liable to return a handsome profit in the years ahead. That is the brutal truth, but it is only half the story.

Picasso, and many of his contemporary artists saw in Africa the wellsprings of their own creative drive. They acknowledged Africa’s creative genius and their work pays homage and tribute to it. Now the African artists are demanding for themselves part of that acclaim and also a proportion of the kind of sums earned by those master artists whose names are household words.

So how has this step-change in attitudes to African and South African art specifically occurred?

Bonhams is the only international auction house to have had the vision to hold specialist South African Art and Contemporary Africa Art sales in Europe. The auction house specialists fly some 50,000 miles round the world each year to the South African diaspora abroad as well as to South Africa itself. Their travels start in London and moves to New York, Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco, Sydney, Melbourne, Tel Aviv and back to London. Then down to Johannesburg, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town – even to Bloemfontein. Bonhams has put South African art on the international map by redrawing that map in air miles.

They’ve also spent a great deal of money advertising and have turned their sales into networking opportunities for South Africa’s financial houses, banks and insurance companies and for the universities. They have used sales as a backdrop to entertain clients and alumni at private dinners and large social events. They have used the compliment of South African art and its power to attract interest, as a means of reaching audiences they wish to connect with. Their boardroom regularly hosts dinners with household names from South Africa talking art, talking politics, talking connections, and talking business.

They have focused their hugely successful international PR machine, led by South African, Julian Roup, on getting the message out about  South African art sales and the increasing number of world records achieved at Bonhams.

So in short, they have worked like hell. Besides all the travel and the hoopla round the sales they have worked with the great museums of the world whose academics and curators help them to establish values. And crucially they have made it their business to know all the collectors, and then they have knocked on their door.

Peppiatt concludes: “Today that door swings open much more readily that it once did. People want sale valuations; they want insurance valuations; they want to buy; they want to sell; they want advice on starting collections. And they want to be part of the track record of success in maximizing value that we have added to South African art.”

Giles Peppiatt, Director of the South African Art Department of Bonhams, the international fine art auction house, is possibly the person most responsible for creating an international market for South African art. Bonhams hold the only specialist auctions of South African art outside of Africa.


Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966)

‘Arab Priest’

Sold for £3,044,000 (R34,270,000)

Gerard Sekoto (South African, 1913-1993)

‘Yellow Houses, District Six’

Sold for £602,400 (R10,542,000)

Jacob Hendrik Pierneef (South African, 1886-1957)

‘The Baobab Tree’

Sold for £826,400 (R14,462,000)

Alexis Preller (South African, 1911-1975)

‘The Garden of Eden’

Sold for £748,000 (R13,090,000)

Vladimir Griegorovich Tretchikoff (South African, 1913-2006) ‘Chinese Girl’

Sold for £982,050 (R17,185,875)

Jean Welz, (South African, 1900-1975)

‘The Three Graces’

Sold £132,000  (R2,320,000)

Ben Enwonwu, M.B.E (Nigerian, 1917-1994)

‘The Mirror sculptures’

Sold for £361,250 (R6,321,875)

El Anatsui (Ghanaian, born 1944)

‘New World Map’

Sold for £541,250 (R9,471,875)