INTERROGATING THE REAL VALUE OF ART

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The success of last Monday’s Art As an Alternative Investment Seminar Series should be rated by its contribution to the education of the local art public rather than by the large attendance of participants, says Okechukwu Uwaezuoke

“Art is more valuable than money,” the Spanish-born Jess Castellote told the expectant audience. “It is not very profitable if you are investing… Great investors make a lot of money. Great collectors create a lot of collections…There are things that are more valuable than money. Art is one of them.”

His insightful statement, an apparent rebuttal of the previous speaker’s presentation, somewhat re-echoed the words of the renowned Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy, in his famous collection A Calendar of Wisdom, had written: “Until they throw the money changers out of the temple of art, it will never be a real temple.”

Interestingly, these were not the kind of words these dewy-eyed devotees, enchanted by the surreal prices Nigerian art works sold for in such international auctions as the Bonham’s and Southeby’s, expected to hear in a gathering like this. Hence, much of their import would have flitted by unheeded.

Indeed, nothing could be more gratifying for a struggling local artist than the prospect of a growing market. Perhaps, that should explain why a topic like “Art As an Alternative Investment” had the effect of a pheromone to the local art community, making the venue of the seminar series – the upper-floor Taraba Hall of the upmarket Lagos neighbourhood of Ikoyi-based The Wheatbaker Hotel – bust at the seams with art enthusiasts and other stakeholders.

As for the event, held on Monday, June 4, it was organised by Omenka Art Gallery in collaboration with FROT Foundation. Featured as the discussants were: Hannah O’ Leary, the director and head of Modern & Contemporary African Art at Sotheby’s; Prince Yemisi Shyllon, the founder of Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation; Jubril Enakele, the managing director/ chief executive officer of Zenith Capital Limited; Jess Castellote, a director of the Foundation for Contemporary & Modern Visual Arts and Oliver Enwonwu, the Society of Nigerian Artists’ president.

That the seminar, “Art As an Alternative Investment”, was obviously inspired by the skyward trend in the value of Nigerian art in the international scene is not hard to figure out. The organisers themselves corroborated this fact with the assertion: “The rising value of value of Nigerian art at international auctions is evidence that collectors, financial institutions and wealth managers alike need to understand its worth. Research shows that art is an attractive investment for portfolio diversification as there is a low correlation with other financial assets.”

In an art market, manipulated by an influential few with the means to drive up the value of what they choose to focus on, Africa still remains a virgin terrain, as Enakele pointed out in his presentation, “Nigerian Art Financing: Overview, Challenges and Opportunities”. According to him, the global art market is worth $63 billion with a 12% year-on-year increase. The share of the US in this market, he added, is 42%, while those of the UK and Asia are 18% and 23%, respectively. Meanwhile, Africa’s share in this huge market, he concluded, is below 0.01%.

Obviously, the bid to drive up the value of the artist – and profit from it – compromises the integrity of the creative process itself. But this really fits into the agenda of auction houses like Sotheby’s, whose interest in the sector is understandably commercial. Hence, O’Leary presentation expectedly celebrated such international bestsellers as El Anatsui, whose work “Paths to the Okro Farm” sold for $1,445,000 at Sotheby’s New York; Njideka Akunyili Crosby, whose painting “Bush Babies” sold for $3,375,000 at Sotheby’s New York; Yinka Shonibare’s work “Crash Willy”, which sold for $290,149 at Sotheby’s London and a painting by the iconic artist Ben Enwonwu, titled “Africa Dances”, which sold at Sotheby’s London for $264,56. “We are seeing more art fairs, art museums and galleries on the continent, which is a good thing,” she enthused.

During the question-and-answer session, she decried the statement credited to Christie’s Francis Outred in The Art Newspaper, alleging the “ghetoisation” of African art by Sotheby’s. According to her, she not only disagrees with the statement, but also resents it.
However, Castellote’s presentation, titled “The Making of a Collector: Guiding Principles and Collecting Strategies” offered consolatory words to a possible few in the audience, who courageously resist being swept along the steeply sloping downward path of crass materialism. “There are many values. But, there are other values that are higher,” he argued.

Thus, a great collector, in his opinion, has to be a passionate one. An ignorant collector cannot put up a great collection, he stressed. A collector must be informed enough to understand why it is important to part with so much of hard-earned money to acquire an artist’s work. In addition, he must be thorough, prudent and organised.

Yet, even this ideal image of a collector would need to adhere to much of the safeguards laid down by Enakele in his presentation. These include education and research, legal services, acquaintance with secondary markets as well as storage and insurance of art works, among others.

Enakele might indeed be concerned that the prevailing conditions in the art industry might not be appealing to lending institutions. But, he also sees these apparent gaps in the “art ecosystem” as “opportunities for new players”. “Nigeria’s art market is growing and it’s a matter of time before supporting infrastructure is in place,” he said on an optimistic note.

An ideal collector should also draw useful lessons from Shyllon’s presentation, “Legal Implications of Collecting Art”. The renowned art collector observed that there are a lot of statutory provisions which have not been tested by Nigerian local laws. First, there was the Hague Convention of 1954, which was followed up by the 1970 UNESCO Convention in Paris, which focused on the “Protection of Cultural Properties”. The latter convention sought “to fortify the protection and transfer of ownership of cultural properties and illegal exports.”

Yet, even these conventions, Shyllon added, fell short of expectations. This necessitated the 1995 UNIDROIT convention, which “was convened to fortify and tackle its defects.”

On the protection of the illegal export of art works, Shyllon disclosed that the “issue is extensively covered by the provisions of the 1977 National Commission for Museums and Monuments Act of Nigeria as amended by the 2004 laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004.”

According to Shyllon, “Section 21 of the act makes provision for the buying and selling of antiquities.” The operative word “antiquities” is interpreted in the Section 32 of the act as works of archaeological interest or relic of human settlement or craft of indigenous origin as well as “any of such objects made or fashioned before the year 1918” or any artistic work of historical or scientific interest or has been used at any time in the performance of any traditional ceremony”.

Hence, he decried the abuse of the provisions of the act by the agents of the NCMM, who insist that every exporter of art works from Nigeria present a clearance certificate on any piece whether modern or contemporary.

Perhaps, more pertinent to the artists in the audience is the Nigerian Copyright Act Cap 28 of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 2004, which ostensibly protects all original artistic works. “The law however behoves on artists the responsibility to register a NOTIFICATION of their right with the Nigeria Copyright Commission,” he stressed.

But since a better understanding of the Nigerian art scene implies a firm grasp of its history. Oliver Enwonwu’s cursory take on “A Brief History of Art in Nigeria” should be an invaluable help for the collector. For the scion of the late renowned Ben Enwonwu, the spectacular performances of Nigerian artists at international auctions only indicate a more promising future for the local art scene. “The future is indeed bright for Nigerian artists,” he argued, adding that this was the right time for investment.

He did a quick run-over of Nigerian art from the pre-colonial traditional Nigerian art, alluding to the Nok terracotta heads of 500 BC, 12th to 15th century life-size Ife heads and masks, 15th century Benin bronze sculptures and the relatively recent 19th century wood carvings and curiously omitting Igbo-ukwu art. Nonetheless, his exposé on the Modern and Contemporary Art were succinct enough as a crash course for any aspiring collector of Nigerian art.

Meanwhile, both the organisers of the seminar series must have been pleased by the unprecedented large attendance. But if its attendance roll-call were the only criterion to deem it a successful event, then the seminar series qualifies as one of the most successful of recent memory. Rather, its success should be rated by its contribution to the education of a growing local art scene.