A Word with the auctioneer

02 Dec 2012

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The ArtHouse Contemporary Limited auctions rates highly among international auctions of its kind, its auctioneer John Dabney tells Olufunke Adepuji

Minutes before last Monday’s ArtHouse Cotemporary Limited’s auction, John Dabney consented to an interview. Save for a few early birds, the Ikoyi, Lagos-based Wheatbaker Hotel venue of the auction was virtually deserted.

The blond-haired Englishman has become synonymous with this biannual art event. He had, after all, successfully steered the course of the auction to its consecutive ninth edition. Fate had, early enough, summoned him to the art circles in spite of his psychology and sociology degree. Cleaning the floors of an auction house and later helping to hang the art works were his Open Sesame into this wonder world. A subsequent study of the history of art launched him into the privileged class of the cognoscenti.

So what were his impressions about the editions of the ArtHouse auction held so far? He lauded their uniqueness and rated them second only to the Bonham’s auction. Both auctions deal in West African art. “The auction is thoroughly professionally organised and remains the only of its kind in Nigeria,” he said.

“The standard and quality [of the ArtHouse auction] are different in style from those of auctions in any other part of the world. The offerings are very indigenous to West Africa. India, for instance, boasts of high quality art offerings while West Africa lags behind. But there is room for improvement.”

He also rates the quality of the lots offered in the editions of the auction held so far highly and acknowledges last Monday’s edition for its enthralling offerings.  Yeah, a dip in the sales seemed evident in one or two editions but, all in all, they were not enough auction had done well.

Even after four years as the biannual event’s auctioneer, Dabney still thinks he has a lot to learn about Nigerian art. “Hitherto,” he explained, “I’d been flying in for the auction and flying out the next day. I’ve had little time to key in into the Nigerian art. Perhaps, I should spend more time to acquaint myself with the local art scene. It’s quite fascinating but I have to go back to the roots.”
Despite his preferences for the traditional Western paintings, the auctioneer seems to gravitate towards the more conceptual w

orks in last Monday’s auction. First, there was Erhabor Emokpae’s “Dancing Faces” and El Anatsui’s winning work “Grandma’s Cloth Series VI”, which caught his fancy. Then there were the intriguing conceptual works by Nnenna Okore and Peju Alatise.

The auctioneer acknowledged the spectacular achievements in the local scene, which he said were not buoyed by hype but egged on by trends in the financial market. “The contemporary art in the West, on the contrary, owe its growth to hype.”

The conversation drifts to the UK-born artist, Damien Hirst, whose successful forays with conceptual art have stunned his critics. Hirst, Dabney argued, once had his glory days as an artist but not anymore. His more recent works – the diamond-encrusted skull and animals preserved in formaldehyde, among others – can in his opinion definitely not be classified as art.    

Tags: Arts and Review, Life and Style

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