a two-speed market

Baulé mask, Ivory Coast (height: 32.5 cm).  Former Frederick R. Pleasants collection (1906-1976), Tucson (United States).

The auction house Sotheby’s disperses, on June 21, 2023, in Paris, around sixty pieces from the collection of Hélène Leloup, a pioneer dealer in the African arts trade. The centerpiece: an austerely beautiful fang sculpture that once belonged to the queen of cosmetics, Helena Rubinstein. In 1966, the work had been sold for 2,750 dollars, a sum already significant for the time. Other times, other amounts: the object is now valued at between 4 and 6 million euros, an estimate in line with exceptional pieces that have gone on sale.

The next day, Christie’s will offer another object from the Helena Rubinstein collection, a metal kota reliquary from Gabon, valued at around 250,000 euros. The opportunity to give a boost to the African arts market, after the sale of the wonderful Périnet collection, which had shattered all records at Christie’s in 2021 (66 million euros, sixteen millionaire auctions).

Despite the success of Parcours des mondes, which, in September 2022, had rallied American collectors to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, or the more modest success of Paris Tribal, whose participants, in April 2023, were smiling, important pieces remain rare at auction.

Read also: Article reserved for our subscribers The collection of Hélène Leloup, pioneer dealer in African art, dispersed at Sotheby’s

“The market is separated into two really distinct partssummarizes the Parisian merchant Charles-Wesley Hourdé. On the one hand, the flagship batches which are snapped up, on the other, the mid-range which sells much more poorly… when it does sell. » It is to the first category, that of masterpieces, that belonged an nkisi n’kondi fetish from the Congo that Christie’s sold for nearly two million euros in June 2022.

Average price: 15,000 euros

Ditto for a Fang mask from Gabon, from the secret society of Ngil, which resurfaced in March of the same year in the south of France, a century after being collected in equatorial Africa by Governor René-Victor Fournier. Sold for 5.25 million euros in Toulouse, it comes close to the record won by a mask of the same type, from the Vérité collection, which Liliane Bettencourt, heiress of L’Oréal, had bought for 5.7 million euros in 2006.

These few records mask the forest of unsold items for all mid-range objects. According to the latest “Artkhade” report, which each year takes the pulse of this sector, the average price of objects from Africa was around 15,000 euros in 2022. That is the basic price to acquire the work of any current young painter.

Kota reliquary figure, Gabon (height: 48.5 cm).  Former Helena Rubinstein collection (1870-1965), Paris-New York.

“Collectors are not renewed, or only slightlydeplores Charles-Wesley Hourdé. There are not enough young people to replace the experienced buyers leaving the market, and the way they buy has changed. » The new entrants do not have the compulsive bulimia of their elders, such as the heir Hubert Goldet or the artist Arman, who spent lavishly. “It is no longer a market of sharp connoisseurs who could buy ten dan masks, but of more “universalist” collectors, less focused on a niche area. »recognizes Victor Teodorescu, director of the African arts department at Christie’s.

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