Sales at last Monday’s Arthouse Contemporary Limited auction in Lagos belied the prognoses of these dismal times, says Okechukwu Uwaezuoke

Sombre economic realities are possibly overrated. Or, aren’t they? It was rather astonishing, if not comforting, that the last Monday’s Arthouse’s Modern and Contemporary 17th auction did not corroborate the gloomy narrative of these times.

First, think of the turnout of aficionados at The Wheatbaker Hotel venue in the upmarket Ikoyi neighbourhood. The almost capacity-filled Taraba Hall of the hotel may not exactly have been filled with bidders – it never had been, in any case – but it certainly proved that the enthusiasm for the biannual event is far from waning.

Then, of course, there were the hammer prices at the auction itself. Their skyward movement remained as assured as they had always been in the past editions. Where else would they go? Wasn’t the point of the auction to drive them upwards? Even the charity sale segment, whose proceeds are destined for the Arthouse Foundation’s coffers, chalked up respectable hammer prices.

A scenario that saw six out of the initial 10 lots in the main sale segment sell for over a million-naira mark is a positive one. This speaks volumes about the auction’s overall successful run in financial terms. Indeed, the tide-like ebb-and-flow of the prices above and below the million-naira mark continued throughout the event that flagged off much later than the advertised 6 pm. Of course, the prices reached their crescendo moments with five forays above the 10 million-naira mark.

This brings us to the top five bestsellers. The highest selling work went rather too predictably to El-Anatsui’s 2016 wood panels’ contraption titled “Ahe”, which was displayed just behind the English-born auctioneer John Dabney. This would not be the first time an El-Anatsui would be so displayed and sell afterwards for the highest hammer price at N16 million. In one of the past Arthouse Contemporary auctions, it elbowed past competing works from its position behind to auctioneer to clinch the Number One spot.

Then, the only Yusuf Grillo among the lots – a stained-glass painting titled “My Taiye” – came so close to it at N15 million as the second bestselling work. Two Ben Enwonwu paintings, “Crowd Scene” (pencil and water colour on paper, 1951) and “Landscape” (oil on board, 1997), followed closely on its heels at N13 million as the next highest-selling works. Yet another Ben Enwonwu – a well-known fibre-glass sculpture titled “Drummer” – brought up the rear of the elite five at N12 million.

Call it a feast of the masters, if you wish. But it is obvious that the bidders seem to know exactly what they wanted, as Dabney affirmed shortly after the event. Not even the auction’s first edition, held in 2007 at the Civic Centre in Victoria Island, generated this many climaxes. But, of course, the times were different. Then, the naira exchanged for more dollars it did now.

Still on the masters, it is still laudable that Kolade Oshinowo’s 2013 mixed media on canvas work titled “Party Mood” and his 2009 oil on canvas painting “The Bride” sold for the hammer price of N3 million and N2.6 million, respectively. Ditto the Ghanaian-born Ablade Glover’s 2007 oil on canvas painting “Facing the Storm”, which sold for N2.8 million. There were also his 1990 oil on canvas painting “Prayer Scene” and 1993 painting of the same medium “The Flood” which chalked up the respectable prices of N2.4 million and N1.7 million, respectively.

But David H. Dale’s “Children at Play” (glass beads on board, 2013) sold higher than these works at N3.7 million. In this above-a-million category, it was in the good company of the works of masters like Ben Enwonwu, Ben Osawe as well as Uche Okeke and delightful artists like Peju Alatishe, Nnenna Okore, Toyin Loye, Rom Isichei, Duke Asidere, Jacob Jari, Kainebi Osahenye, Clary Nelson Cole, Olu Ajayi, Abiodun Olaku, Bunmi Babatunde, Senegalese-born Solly Cissé, Uche Joel Chima, George Osodi, Ghanaian-born Ato Delaquis, Eva Obodo, Sokari Douglas-Camp, Olumide Onadipe, Olumide Oresegun, Lemi Ghariokwu and Oliver Enwonwu, among others.

Apparently, the master-non master dichotomy seems to have long worn thin among the bidders at the Arthouse auctions. This is even when the work of a non-master is yet to make it as the highest selling work. Still, works by less-renowned artists have consistently groped beyond the one-million naira mark to be ignored. In all fairness, the Kavita Chellaram-run auction house has never overtly encouraged such dichotomy. That explains its miscellany of lots drawn from across the generations of contemporary Nigerian artists as well as from the diaspora and crème de la crème of the artists from other African countries like Benin, Ghana, Senegal and Zambia in this 17th edition.

Critics would readily acknowledge the consistent growth of such younger generation of artists as Olumide Oresegun (whose photorealistic 2015 oil on canvas painting “Glancing” was sold for N 700, 000 hammer price), Richardson Ovbiebo (whose 2016 fibreglass, bicycle wheel and paint work “Halo” was priced at N850, 000), Obinna Makata (whose 2016 mixed-media on canvas “Sacred Mantra” was bought for N750, 000) and Olumide Onadipe (whose 2016 conceptual work sold for N1 million).

As for the diaspora Nigerian artists like Chidi Kwubiri, Nnenna Okore and Sokari Douglas-Camp and the locally-based frontline artists like Rom Isichei, Peju Alatishe, Duke Asidere and Kainebi Osahenye, their performance at the auctions have always been impressive.
Of course, the performance owes more than a little to the whims of the bidders, whose choices do not always acknowledge the generally-accepted notions of masterhood. Sometimes, their philistinic aloofness is mind-boggling. But then, they literally call the shots.

Meanwhile, less-known collectors seem to have filled in the gaps like behind by older ones. Among the older habitués of the auction, two have recently passed on. The first was the amiable Sammy Olagbaju, who departed this earth-life sometime in late September and Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi, who breathed his last on Wednesday (two days after the auction).
All in all, it has been a difficult year for the Lagos art scene even when it retains much of its lustre and vitality. Events like the biannual Arthouse Contemporary Auction of Modern and Contemporary Art have given so many a glimmer of hope to look forward to.

Meanwhile, the auction house has announced the call for entries for its second annual affordable art auction holding at the Kia Showroom in Victoria Island, Lagos on February 11, 2017 from 6 pm. Works billed for the auction, which “aims to engage emerging markets and the rise of new collector base, with all works estimated at below N1000, 000,” should have been received by the auction house on December 1.