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Welcome to the intriguing world of wealthy art collectors

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor and Tajudeen Sowole
01 March 2019   |   4:18 am
As the November sun descended on the hallowed ground of Civic Centre, Lagos, it was not hard to see why the city had become an art’s hub and culture capital...

One of the works exhibited at the 2018 Art X Lagos

The art market is thriving and record prices are regularly made and broken, and not just in the contemporary art market, but across virtually all top end sectors. But who are these people paying such prices for artworks? What motivates them? In this report, GREGORY AUSTIN NWAKUNOR (Arts and Culture Editor) and TAJUDEEN SOWOLE find out.

As the November sun descended on the hallowed ground of Civic Centre, Lagos, it was not hard to see why the city had become an art’s hub and culture capital of West Africa: For the third year in a row, the ‘State of Aquatic Splendour’ stood still to experience ART X Lagos, the fair showcasing and supporting contemporary art from Africa and the diaspora.

Over the course of that weekend, November 2 to 4, 2018, ART X Lagos opened its doors to visitors from all over the world, including the guest of honour, the Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi (Ojaja II).

Collectors from across the world, fellow royal dignitaries including, the Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Nnaemeka Alfred Achebe and other guests, as well as art enthusiasts of all ages, joined the Ooni at the fair.

Eighteen leading galleries from across the world participated, showcasing the cutting edge of contemporary African art. The exhibiting galleries are Addis Fine Art (Ethiopia), Afriart Gallery (Uganda), Arthouse – The Space (Nigeria), Artyrama (Nigeria), Bloom Art (Nigeria), Circle Art Agency (Kenya), Gallery 1957 (Ghana), Nike Art Gallery (Nigeria), Nubuke Foundation (Ghana), Out of Africa Gallery (Spain), Retro Africa (Nigeria), Signature Beyond (Nigeria), SMAC Gallery (South Africa), SMO Contemporary (Nigeria), Stevenson (South Africa), TAFETA (UK), Thought Pyramid (Nigeria) and Tiwani Contemporary (UK).

Curated by A Whitespace Creative Agency, the fair featured diverse and exciting art installations across conductive art and virtual reality, stretching the boundaries of contemporary African art.

When the second edition also held, the fair drew more than 9,000 people — bank executives, government officials, the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II and other potential customers.

Access Bank Plc, the major sponsor of ART X Lagos, loaned to the fair, Ben Enwonwu’s iconic painting, Tutu, which in 2017, became the most highly valued work of Nigerian modern art ever sold at auction for £1.2 million ($1.67 million). Initial estimates suggested it could sell for up to $417,000.

The public display of Tutu marked a hugely significant moment in Nigeria’s art history, as the painting made its first public display in Nigeria since 1975, when it was last shown in Lagos.

In 1973 and 1974, Enwonwu painted three portraits of Princess Adetutu Ademiluyi. But all three versions of ‘Tutu’ had been missing even before the artist’s death in 1994. One of them, it turned out, was the painting that hung inconspicuously in a London family’s home.

The sale was a confirmation of Nigeria’s arrival in the world of contemporary art, whose demand is booming in the U.S. and Europe. The newfound interest there is part of a larger cultural and economic revival. This demand has equally fueled a rise in the number of galleries and auction houses. It has also allowed many artists to make a living at home, reclaiming their Nigerian identities with creations that take on themes that resonate with a Nigerian audience, such as corruption, national and gender politics, and other issues.

Though there is no official statistics as to the value of Nigerian art market, it currently commands prices never before conceivable. Bush Babies, a 2017 work by US-based Njideka Akunyili-Crosby, was sold for $3,375,000. It has been described as a world record for an African art sale.

For now, it is a modest $5.55mn (Global figures stands at $63bn and global online art sales grossed over $5 billion). According to the Nigerian Art Market Report prepared by Jess Castellote, in 2017, only nine auctions dedicated to Modern or Contemporary African Art included a significant or predominant number of artworks by Nigerian artists: Arthouse (3), Bonhams (2), Piasa (2), Sogal (1) and Sotheby’s (1).

That same year, the value of artworks by Nigerian artists sold at African Art auctions increased to $5,539,648 from $3,794,924 in 2016 and $2,990,395 in 2015.

There were 323 artworks and 140 artists. The number sold in Lagos was 225 and 98 in London and Paris.

Tokini Peterside, the founder of the fair, said one of her goals was “to encourage the increasing number of wealthy West Africans to see themselves as collectors and to see art as an investment.”

Welcome Nigerian art collectors
Today, Nigeria is immersing itself in zeitgeist; a particular moment in history when art collecting has become a thriving venture. It has become a booming business. And for this singular reason, visual artists in the country have come to realise that big-time art collectors have a lot to do to encourage the profession to prosper.

Prior the millennium, art collecting was not exactly popular in the country, as nearly all the outlets for the projection of Nigerian art such as, museums were government-owned.

Apart from foreign culture missions such as, Alliance Francais and Goethe Institut, which also exhibited Nigerian art, critical appreciation was mostly restricted to museums.

The Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos, founded by the late Bisi Silva expanded the narratives on critical appreciation of art in Nigeria and beyond.

Clearly, Nigerian collectors have a very robust trajectory in art appreciation to tap from. And as the secondary art market — barely 11 years old — energises the art collecting passion, the future is pregnant with questions.

The late Chief Torch Taire, Sammy Olagbaju, John Edokpolo, Chief Emmanuel Olisambu and Rasheed Gbadamosi were among collectors driven by aesthetic appreciation and not for investment.

Belonging to the same generation and passion in art collecting are Igwe Achebe and Omooba Yemisi Shyllon. Their vast collections have inspired yet to be opened privately funded new museums. The Shyllon Museum is being built at Pan Atlantic University (PAU), Ajah, Lagos, while the monarch’s funded Chimedie Museum is in Onitsha Ado, Anambra State. Not forgetting Didi Museum by Newton Jibunoh.

Shyllon, who started his collection in 1971, said, “I can’t remember the name of the artist, but the work was a wooden piece.”

Kavita Chellaram

Collectors’ appreciation tastes vary according to choice of artists and medium of genres of works. In over 48 years of art collecting, Shyllon hasn’t developed any fatigue. “If I were to instantly write a cheque for any artwork now, it would be one of El AnatsuI’s aluminum foils.”

What to know about art collectors
Every man is an artist, said Joseph Beuys. That may be, but not every artist is worth collecting. “A good artist hunts elusive and rare game called the ‘art collector’. “They are mostly solitary creatures roaming the plains of the art gallery establishment. They need very tasty bait to come out of hiding, cheque books in hand,” art critics have argued. A good artist gets inside of an art collector’s mind.

UBS AG, a Swiss global financial services company co-headquartered in Zürich and Basel, in a recent survey aimed at establishing what motivated collectors to spend time and money on artworks during the year of 2017, noted that passion outweighed the potential profit in the purchase of artwork.

The survey said 71 per cent of collectors were mainly driven by the appreciation of what they personally saw as beautiful artworks and the passion for expanding the collection.

Furthermore, 32 per cent of collectors stated that they like to support up-and-coming artists, while 29 per cent agreed that they see their collections as something deeply rooted in their respective cultures.

About 23 per cent of the interviewed individuals noted that they plan to gift their art to charities and 18 per cent of them said that they see the collection as a means of achieving diversification.

As the survey found out, profit is rarely a driving factor for someone collecting art.

Only 13 per cent of the collectors said that they plan to sell their art at any point in time, while a mere nine per cent stated that they see their collections as a hedge against inflation, usually a big aspect of art investing strategies.

Most people buying art are not art collectors. They are just people who like to decorate their homes with nice things. If you and your art have a good name, then these home decorators will buy your art, maybe even lots of it. There is money to be made there.

Though collectors have habits that are sometimes considered as queer, like the oil billionaires, J Paul Getty and Calouste Gulbenkian, who were famously known to be miserly, they, however, sustained the art.

Getty is said to have installed a payphone in his mansion in Surrey, England, to stop visitors from making long-distance calls. He even refused to pay ransom for a kidnapped grandson for so long that the frustrated kidnappers sent him his grandson’s ear in the mail.

Yet he spent millions of dollars on art, and millions more to build the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

He called himself ‘an apparently incurable art-collecting addict’, and noted that he had vowed to stop collecting several times, only to suffer ‘massive relapses’. Fearful of airplanes and too busy to take the time to sail to California from his adopted hometown of London, he never even visited the museum his money had filled.

Another wealthy oilman, Gulbenkian, accumulated a fabulous art collection and called the works ‘my children’. Mostly ignoring his flesh-and-blood son and daughter, he lived to serve his art.

Claiming that ‘my children must have privacy’ and ‘a home fit for Gulbenkians to live in’, he built a mansion in Paris with barricades, watchdogs and a private secret service.

But even this extreme of a collector who prefers art to people shows the importance of the social role of collecting, since Gulbenkian simply treated artworks as if they were people.

Collectors drive the art world, but what drives art collectors? It’s less about aesthetics than self-identification

Another popular explanation for collecting – financial gain – cannot explain why collectors go to such lengths. Of course, many people buy art for financial reasons. You can resell works, sometimes, reaping enormous profit. You can get large tax deductions for donating art to museums.

Meanwhile, some collectors have figured out how to keep their artworks close at hand while still getting a tax deduction by donating them to private museums that they’ve set up on their own properties. More nefariously, some ‘collectors’ buy art as a form of money laundering, since it is far easier to move art than cash between countries without scrutiny.

Be that as it may, the reality of art being commercialised can hardly be separated from its aesthetic value. In fact, the increasing vibrancy of the secondary art market in Nigeria, since 2008, when Arthouse auctions unearthed new value for African art, has inspired collectors’ commercial drive.

“No, it is not driven by commerce,” Shyllon said. “They are driven by investment value.” While admitting that he doesn’t sell art, he argued that those who see art as investment are justified. “I see the value of art rising astronomically in Nigeria, and investors like to put their money where it will increase in value.”

In fact, Shyllon, a stockbroker, insisted that apart from enjoying the aesthetics, “art is a better investment than many of the known vehicles, for example treasury bills and others.”

With astronomical rise in the value of art as investment, some purists in the critical appreciation field have expressed fear that the joy of art collecting might be lost in the future.

“It can never be lost,” Shyllon disagreed, noting that the more people invest in art, the better for creativity. “Artists, curators, historians and valuers will be inspired to work harder just like more investment has not reduced the joy of art appreciation in Europe and America, it cannot be lost in Nigeria too.”

Jeff Ajueshi, whose galleries, in Lagos and Abuja, deal with collectors across generations, cautioned that art collecting also involved a bit of academics. He noted that researching and making careful study of the art scene by building a passion for art “and getting to know the artists you wish to collect,” are basic foundation for collecting.

They do not want cheap art. They like expensive art. Very expensive art, and very rarely do they descend low to get what they want.

“Most serious artists who the real collectors chase do a major amount of work to get to where they are. Often they study, travel, sometimes choose to live in extreme circumstances, they mix with other about-to-be famous artists in ‘a school’ and they pull off major exhibitions in serious galleries of both the commercially and culturally important kind. They don’t tend to paint nice landscapes on a Sunday for delivery to the local gallery on Monday,” said an art critic.

They live full and colourful lives. They are interesting, intriguing and their legend grows as their dealers, friends and hangers-on spread the word of their artistic exploits throughout the land.

What they will do if they are really interested in you is watch and wait. They will keep an eye out for you in the galleries (who are really selling fine art – not local tourist galleries) and the magazines; they will quietly pop by to see how your exhibitions are doing. They will hold you on mental file until such time that you prove you and your art are a worthy investment either culturally or financially, and then as your star begins to ascend into the stratosphere and you are actually selling fine art (in quantity) they will begin to pick up some of your work.

In probing behavioural pattern of collectors, art gallery owners cannot be pushed aside. Ajueshi, director of Thought Pyramid Art Centre, recalled his early encounters with art as a kid during a visit to the National Museum, Benin City, Edo State.

An interaction with a wood sculptor when he accompanied his father to collect a walking stick also triggered his interest and love for art appreciation. Decades after, he is not just an arts collector, but also an entrepreneur.

“Art is priceless and for any art that speaks to me and appeals to my spirit, I will be willing to acquire at whatever cost,” Ajueshi, whose experience in gallery management is nearly two decades, said.

It is every collector’s dream to have the old masters in their walls. In fact, fresh and young collectors are not left out of the race for tastes of the old masters. But there is the need to take one step before the next.

“Enwonwu was not selling as much as N1 million when he was alive, neither did El Anatsui start selling in millions,” Shyllon said as advice to young or fresh collectors.

He also advised those newly going into art collecting to start with young artists. He, however, cautioned, “art should not be seen from the monetary perspective alone.”

He also advised young collectors not to see patronage as doing the artist a favour. “Respect the artist just as you respect their works.”

Tracking the trajectory of art collecting in Nigeria, Ajueshi recalled that the people were very art-conscious before the incursion of Western culture. “We lost our way along the line due to Westernisation and financial instability, but now we are beginning to find ourselves back and thus art collection has improved,” Ajueshi argued.

He added that collecting art of Nigerian origin is promoting “our culture, history and way of life.”

Specifically, on what drives art collecting in Nigeria, Ajueshi stated: “collection of art in Nigeria is driven by the love of culture, history and also it doubles as a means of investment.”

Ajueshi belongs in the new generation of art collectors and gallery owners. He, however, seemed exposed enough to look at the future of art appreciation in Nigeria.

Omooba Yemisi Shyllon, reputed to be Africa’s biggest collector

“I foresee a boom in a few years as the art sector in Nigeria is gradually taking proper form and the foundations of a proper structure are being set.”

He cited as “ripple effect” what he noted as strengthening of “creation of art by artists and greater promotion and interest in the art which will further increase the collection of Nigerian art both by local and the international community.”

Factors that motivate Nigerian collectors
Though not all collectors buy art for the same reason, knowing what motivates the collector in front of you might help get your art out the door. Many collectors seek to accumulate possessions no one else has while other collectors collect to further embrace a hobby they already love. For art collectors, both of these reasons are true, but there are several specific reasons are lovers choose to collect art.
To support the arts: Dedicated art collectors understand the value art has on society. To support their deep passion for the arts, art collectors take it upon themselves to strengthen the industry.

Edokpolo’s collection and his enduring interactions with artists had stretched his relationship with artists beyond mere collection. He wasn’t just a collector. He wasn’t just a buyer and keeper of art works. He was a true art patron in the real sense of the word: He took special interest in the wellbeing of the artist.

He believed that only the emotional balance of the artist could bring out the best of his creativity. This he had demonstrated in his steady financial aid to some artists. An unforgettable experience was that of Benin-based artist, Amos Odion, who even told the story to many people before Edokpolo confirmed the same to me.

Apart from collecting works at exhibition venues and artist studios, Edokpolo regularly commissioned artists to produce large-size works. This is rare in art collection in Nigeria. A 24 feet x 6 feet painting produced by Abayomi Barber is a typical example of such rare massive sizes in his collection. Other artists with monumental sizes in his collection include Toyin Alade, Bimbo Adenugba, Mufu Onifade, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Amos Odio, Monday Akhidue and more.

Edokpolo, who was a dedicated art collector for over 44 years, had over 400 works in his repertoire.

The late Olagbaju, who died in September 2016, at 75, for more than two decades, was among three of the regular art collectors whose presence at art exhibitions in Nigeria were synonymous with the number of red stickers on the walls of galleries.

Olagbaju’s texture of art collection transcended his base; he collected art from countries across Africa.

Beyond collecting art, Olagbaju also extended his love for art appreciation to the terrain of documentation. In 2012, he sponsored the publication of a book titled Contemporary Nigerian Art in Lagos Private Collections.

Olagbaju sponsored quite a number of art exhibitions, particularly those featuring works of young artists.
To preserve history: Owning a work of art often means owning a piece of history. Many collectors draw on their heritage to collect art from artists with similar backgrounds or life stories. Some collectors seek limited editions from high-profile artists to claim their stake on art history.

Shyllon owns about 7,000 pieces of artworks ranging from traditional and neo-traditional African art to contemporary painting and sculptures. According to CNN, Shyllon’s is the largest art collection in Africa.

Shyllon’s private foundation, the Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation (OYASAF) regularly sponsors international fellowships and workshops, as well as lends artworks to international museums.

Shyllon yearly brings scholars, curators and art historians from outside Nigeria to visit and study his collection, interacts with Nigerian artists and other art collectors, and promotes research into Nigerian culture, including other art forms of interest to scholars.

His collections comprise artworks from other African countries like Togo, South Africa, Senegal, Ghana and Cameroon. He believes that by collecting art, he is safeguarding Nigerian cultural heritage.

“I don’t believe collections should just be about collecting and enjoying art. I think it should go beyond just collecting – it should go into the element of propagating the culture or the heritage of the people and way of life of the people.

“Not only that, it should finally go to the extent of creating a legacy,” Shyllon said of his enthusiasm for art works.

His foundation has donated many life-size sculptural monuments to public places and institutions in Nigeria, notably among which are, the 18 life-size sculptural works of art to the Freedom Park, Lagos, and significant monuments to the Universities of Lagos and Ibadan.
To reveal their personality: Obtaining artwork is a powerful way to express one’s personality. While some collectors stick with a certain style or specific artist, others collect a diverse range of artwork from various artists to convey different sides of their personality.

Art collectors understand the unmatched feeling of discovering a new work of art for their collection. After carefully researching, nothing compares to finally encountering new artworks for their collection.

When Shyllon first started, it was merely a thing of interest. It became a passion and eventually an obsession. Now, it has become an interesting vocation that engages his mind and allows him to give positive value back to the society.

Olufemi Akinsanya’s passion for traditional Nigerian art started from his childhood. Today, his collection comprises hundreds of classic and traditional art figures, masks, costumes and objects from almost every ethnic group in Nigeria—from the Yoruba to the Chamba people of neighbouring Cameroun.

Akinsanya’s collection demonstrates the continued existence of important indigenous artworks in Nigeria and also documents their changing forms.

He also realised over time, that these objects depicted cultural practices of his own people. When he started collecting, Akinsanya felt that he had a responsibility not to end up with a collection full of forgeries. He decided on a strategy to be more prudent, diligent and careful. Thus, he cultivated a small club of Nigerian dealers — some of whom are actively sourcing objects for notable collectors offshore. Now, because of many years of continuing relationship and patronage, some of these dealers show him objects before they show anyone else.

He has been collecting for more than half of his life now, and still only buys objects he finds attractive. While acknowledging that many objects were made and incorporated into traditional religious practices, he noted that not all pieces were used for religious purposes; some were simply decorative and others were used in social contexts. “Nevertheless, I know for a fact that these objects were made by artists; people that were practising art as their profession,” he said in an earlier interview with The Guardian.
To adorn their homes: This may seem obvious, but decorating living spaces is a major reason art collectors embrace their passion. Coming home to see a favourite painting every day is a completely different experience than walking past it in a gallery. Collectors want to live with their art and let it seep into the soul of their homes.

Gbadamosi was known as an avid collector of works of art, sculptures and others. He was also a founding member and later Vice-Chairman of the Visual Art Society of Nigeria (VASON). This was in recognition of the pervasive influence, which the master- artist, Yusuf Grillo, had on him on his return to Nigeria in 1966. He was particularly thrilled and fond of Grillo`s art titled, ‘Awopa procession’, a depiction of Lagos traditional ritual setting.

One other invaluable work of art in possession of Gbadamosi is the piece on the palace of Oba of Ikorodu painted by the artist, Kehinde Sanwo. The work becomes more relevant today, in the words of Gbadamosi, because “within two years of my acquiring that work, the Oba’s palace was demolished to pave the way for a more befitting structure to be built by the Lagos State government.”

Another artwork owned by Gbadamosi was the house of the popularly acclaimed multi-millionaire of old, Da Rocha. “Whenever I see Pa Da Rocha’s building depicted on canvas by Sanwo, it reminds me of the man I used to see being driven in cart, just like Queen of England on a cart-ride. But this building and others are no more because we are used to ruins in this country. Thank God, I have the paintings to remind us of that period.”

One unique feature of Gbadamosi’s art collections is that, “he was perhaps the only collector that boasts of about 100 or more different artists spread across paintings, sculptures, mixed media and prints.”
To express emotion: Art collectors often feel a deep connection to the artwork in their collection. Whether an important memory or a family likeness, collectors often express deep emotions through their collections.
To connect with an artist: Many art collectors feel a kinship with a certain artist because of their background, style of work or life story. To connect with that artist, collectors avidly follow their journey and acquire works of art from the artist’s collection. The Indian-born, London-educated art collector Kavita Chellaram, in 2007, founded Arthouse Contemporary, an auction house based in Lagos that focuses on modern and contemporary art from West Africa.

Being an avid collector, her meticulous research in art auction houses has led to the global recognition of numerous modern African masters, including Ben Enwonwu, Kolade Oshinowo, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Ablade Glover, Yusuf Grillo and Uche Okeke.

She originally started collecting art for a very simple reason – because she wanted to fill the walls in her house. She came from a family that collected art and had an understanding from a young age about the importance of art. She also started collecting as an extension of her own heritage and experiences, first collecting Indian art and then moving to Nigerian art.

The first works of Nigerian art she bought were at an exhibition in Lagos in 1977. She bought works by Twins Seven Seven and Jimoh Buraimoh. At that time, the art market in Lagos as it is known today was almost non-existent.

Chellaram’s collection covers both modern and contemporary works of art. Her collection is diverse. It includes painting, sculpture, photography and mixed media. She does not have a particular focus on style or period; she collects what moves her.