NADIA SESAY: When you first imagined an auction on African art what were your expectations and how do they measure up to this sale?
GILES PEPPIATT: The sale we had yesterday measured up to my expectations. We sold 85% which is extraordinary. If you sell over 75% you did well; sell under 60% is bloody awful, and I’ve been in all of those categories. To sell 85% is a good day, so I couldn’t be more pleased.
When I started I didn’t envision it. You learn your way to what is salable. In terms of this market, we are really the only one doing it so there was a learning curve. No one had shown the way. No one had really done these sales before.
Grillo and El Anatsui are the ones selling very well; it’s no different from the contemporary art market. You will always see Koons, Warhol, Basquiat – that’s just the way it is. I hate to use the words ‘brands’ but these names are known. People will buy them and people will sell them, and that’s just the way the market goes. But it does take a while for these great [African] artists to become recognized and sell at the prices of [those other great artists].
When I started I didn’t think we would split the sale into two. That really only came after six years. We wanted to do it earlier but the sales weren’t big enough. That came about because there were different buyers going after different markets, so that made it logical to separate sales that served both constituencies.
NADIA SESAY: Has the diversity of collectors evolved along with the sales?
GILES PEPPIATT: Luckily, yes. It’s getting in new collectors that is terribly important. It’s certainly important on the contemporary side because those are the ones making a difference. Getting in those big collectors of contemporary art and interesting them in contemporary art from Africa is the Holy Grail – that’s what everyone wants. Now, it is happening. It’s a slow process but it is happening. Every year we get another four or five collectors from a community, and they are making a difference. The encouraging thing this year is for the first time we are seeing new buyers from, for example, China. Not at a high level but they are, in fact, fixed on contemporary art from Africa.
NADIA SESAY: You are adding about 4 to 5 collectors per sale. Given that the price of African art compared to the price of art in the broader contemporary and modern market is so under-priced, why aren’t collectors rushing in?
GILES PEPPIATT: It’s confidence. It takes time and people need to feel the market is here to stay; that the market is underpinned by a broad base; and that the market is not going to collapse in two years’ time. They also need to like the works and a lot of that is about education - showing them why a work is worthy and to get them to appreciate it. But you’re absolutely right – they’re not rushing in. They are slowly walking through the door. In a way I wouldn’t prefer them rushing in because sometimes that means you’re attracting speculators and speculation is the last thing we want. That’s what happened to the Chinese market. You had people coming in thinking they could buy a picture and turn it around in 18 months and make 50% profit. Then what happens at the first hint of a downturn is they all rush through the door and you get a rather nasty crash. I don’t think that would be healthy. Most of the buyers we have are committed collectors buying because they want the works on their walls. They’re not buying the works and putting them in storage. Luckily that’s not happening.
NADIA SESAY: Given the success of the Modern sale, are you confident about the Contemporary sale in October?
GILES PEPPIATT: I am certainly hopeful but cautious. I think confident is the wrong word, not because I don’t think we’ll do well but because I’ve been in this business too long to know that things don’t always turn out as you’ve hoped, but you’re always hopeful. The contemporary market is strong. I will say it’s not easy because convincing these collectors that contemporary art from Africa is worthy is difficult. But we’re getting there. I think that we will have a good sale.
NADIA SESAY: What is the state of the market for contemporary art from Africa in 10 years' time?
GILES PEPPIATT: The market will be stronger, but it will change. Other artists will emerge in 10 years’ time that we haven’t spotted. In regard to the modern market, I think it will grow more slowly. The contemporary market will grow more strongly and even eclipse [the modern market]. If you look at collecting tastes of other markets the rise in contemporary market in general seems almost unstoppable. Contemporary art was never even sold at auction until about 2000, so that’s what I think. The contemporary will outgrow this market.