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Nigerian Contemporary Art Takes On The World With Hannah O’Leary

At Sotheby’s — the world’s oldest, largest and arguably most prestigious auction house — the inaugural sale of Modern and Contemporary African Art was held in May 2017, with the sales generating about £2.8 million (N1,357,890,303). Critical to this success is Hannah O’Leary, Director and Head of Modern and Contemporary African art at Sotheby’s.

On her work, O’Leary has commented,

“Sotheby’s offers the best expertise, excellent customer service, a wide network of offices and representatives internationally, and a holistic view of the business of art, including everything from appraisals, to shipping services, to tax and heritage advice, and scientific authentication services.

Combined, this gives us an edge over all our [competitors] and ultimately results in the best prices for our clients. This means that people often come to us with potential consignments and Nigeria has been no different, and I have been delighted at the enthusiastic response to our entry into this market. We work closely with consultants and logistics companies to ensure consignment from Nigeria is straightforward for our clients.”

Last month, Sotheby’s set the new world record for Nigerian artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby with Bush Babies 2017, which sold for $3,375,000 USD (N1,216,687,500), making her the most valuable Nigerian artist of all time. They have also found success with other contemporary Nigerian artists like Yinka Shonibare, Toyin Ojih Odutola and Abiodun Olaku.

Hannah insists this is just the beginning of a potentially long-term relationship with Nigerian artists. “Of course there are many factors we consider before including an artist in our auctions. The artists sold at Sotheby’s are already well-known internationally and have an existing following among both collectors and museums. I also keep an eye on younger, emerging artists, especially when I visit art fairs such as 1-54 in London and New York and Art X Lagos.”

Sotheby’s next sale of Modern and Contemporary African art is in October 2018. Speaking from her position as arbiter of taste in contemporary African art, O’Leary believes there’s potential, beyond Sotheby’s, for local collecting to sustain artists at the grassroots who do not have immediate access to institutions such as Sotheby’s.

She says, “I think the local market here in Nigeria is extremely important. I always describe the art world as an ecosystem. There are many players who build an artist’s reputation, including art schools, commercial galleries, museum curators, collectors, critics, writers and, finally, the auction houses.

I could not do what I do in London, promoting Nigerian art to the world, without being able to point to a thriving market in Nigeria itself. Of course, the market here is already thriving and we can credit initiatives such as the many commercial contemporary art galleries, Arthouse Contemporary, and Art X Lagos in helping to advance the local market. Beyond this, I would like to see more museums and education initiatives, more public engagement with the arts and government support”.

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