An Auction House Specialist Is Rewriting the Rules of the African Art Market

In museums and galleries, and on the art market, African art has become sought-after. But international recognition didn’t happen overnight, as many might assume. Instead, it came through the concerted efforts of African art experts like Bonhams specialist Helene Love-Allotey.

In sales at that auction house, Love-Allotey has been quietly rewriting the rules of the burgeoning African art market. In 2020, Love-Allotey broke away from the tradition of putting the most expensive lot on the cover of sale catalogues, placing Zanele Muholi’s Sasa, Bleecker, New York, 2016 from their “Somnyama Ngonyama” series on the front. She was also a part of the team involved in the high-profile sale of Ben Enwonwu’s 1974 painting Tutu, which was long presumed to be lost. It wound up selling for $1.6 million, more than $1 million more than it was estimated to go for.

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Based in London, Love-Allotey was named head of African modern and contemporary art sales at Bonhams this past April. She previously joined the company in September 2015 as an art handler.

ARTnews spoke to Love-Allotey about how the African art market is changing and why collectors are adding works by African artists and artists of the African diaspora to their holdings.

What is important to you about the work you’ve been doing to bring more African art to the market?

Africa is a huge continent. There are a lot of countries, different ethnic groups, and many artistic styles. We always try to make sure that as many countries are represented in the sale to show the diversity of artistic practices.

In addition, there are artists who have immigrated and continue to be influenced by their heritage in their practice, which is why we’ve expanded to include artists who identify with the African diaspora. I am also trying to champion the full cycle of African art and develop relationships with collectors and art enthusiasts across Africa.

I was especially glad to present Seth Dei’s collection in Ghana a few years ago. We exhibited the works in Accra. It was a great opportunity to showcase these important works before they were offered for sale. It was really successful, with a great turnout, and everyone appreciated that we were cultivating these relationships.

What do you enjoy most about working at Bonhams?

It’s a unique environment to work in, and I don’t think anyone fully understands auction houses until they work in one. I am really lucky and privileged to be able to handle so many artworks day-to-day and be surrounded by them. I learn so much from seeing these works in person. I am able to work with such a variety of artists, and we’re encouraged to explore our own passions. I always wanted to introduce photography to our sales and it’s great that I’ve been supported in this.

What are you most looking forward to about the upcoming auction of modern and contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora in New York this Wednesday?

It’s a smaller curatorial focus, but we cover a huge range, from photography in post-colonial Mali to present-day South Africa to abstract paintings and works on paper. This is the first time we’ve expanded to include the diaspora [in an African art sale at Bonhams], and I’m thrilled to be offering works by Aubrey Williams, who was born in Guyana and then moved to Britain.

This is also the first time we’ve included photography. The catalogue cover features photographs on both the front and back, works by Malick Sidibe and Samuel Fosso. We have quite a few of the works from photographers who lived and worked in Mali. They accurately portrayed the post-colonial energy of Bamako, which is known to this day to be a hub for African photography.

We also have four paintings by Abdoulaye “Aboubia” Diarrassouba. Aboudia’s market is incredibly exciting, as we were selling his work for around £10,000 two years ago. Now his works fetch over £150,000, as proven in our last two auctions in London and Paris.

We also have an early work by Skunder Boghossian and a portrait by Godwin Oluwole Omofemi, who is rather popular with contemporary art collectors at the moment.

Abstraction featuring blotchy red, cerulean blue, and mustcard-colored forms. Figures appear to emerge from the abstraction.

Carib Ritual (6), a 1973 painting by the British Guayanese artist Aubrey Williams, is among the works that will be offered in Bonhams’s first African art sale to include works by artists of the African diaspora.

What are the shifts have you noticed in the market for African art and art of the African diaspora?  

I have noticed in our field that a lot of collectors are now looking at African art. Since people’s attitudes have started to change in the past few years, particularly when it comes to diversifying their collections, and thinking about art history and how Eurocentric it has been. A lot of people are seeking to diversify their collections and look at acquiring works by African artists.

In our market, there’s a huge interest in African artists from the 1950s and the 1960s, such as Papa Ibra Tall, Gerard Sekoto, Skunder Boghossian, and Demas Nwoko. They did incredibly well in their career and lifetime, but they have slipped off the radar and have only started to come back and receive the attention they deserve.

[There] is also a huge explosion of interest in Black figurative painting. There are a lot of emerging artists from Ghana doing this, including Cornelius Annor. These artists have achieved incredible results—quite staggering, given how recent the trend is.

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What is the reason behind Ghanaian artists and art being in demand on the market?

For a while, the focus was on Lagos and the artists and galleries rising to prominence there. But recently the focus has shifted to Ghana, which is really interesting. I think it’s a credit to the amazing art school in Kumasi [the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology] that has produced some of the most amazing artists. There are a lot of people championing art in Ghana, from Accra to Tamale. For instance, Ibrahim Mahama has a space in Tamale, the SSCA Tamale [Savannah Center for Contemporary Art], which he uses to support local artists and education.

Painting of a street scene featuring merchants selling their wares.

Cornelius Annor, Day Break, 2017.

You also run an Instagram account called African Art History. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned while running it?

There still isn’t a huge focus on African art in art history education. The account focuses on the representation of women and artists exploring queer themes. I was lucky to go to a university that had a special focus on African art, so I use my account to make it more accessible and often collaborate with my professors for insight. Sometimes they use my research and writings for their lessons.

I always encourage people to visit our sale previews because it’s an amazing chance to see so many African artworks in one space, from such a variety of different countries and time periods. I think people often think of auction houses as commercial only, but there’s so much research and connoisseurship that goes into every sale. We spend the majority of our time developing in-depth catalogues so it’s very educational.

I like to take my learnings from the auction house and make them more accessible through social media. I often feel like I’m wearing two hats—the commercial one and the educational one—and I’m passionate about both.


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