Yusuf Adebayo Cameron Grillo (Nigerian, born 1934) 'The Flight'

Inside Bonhams
Africa rising

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 78

Inside Bonhams
Africa rising

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 78

El Anatsui (Ghanaian, born 1944) 'New World Map'

Inside Bonhams
Africa rising

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 78

Vladimir Griegorovich Tretchikoff (South African, 1913-2006) 'Chinese Girl'

Inside Bonhams
Africa rising

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 78

Giles Peppiatt, Director of African Art, has taken his department from unexplored territory to international success. He tells Lucinda Bredin why Bonhams is leading the market

The word 'iconic' is banned from Bonhams Magazine – except when discussing Russian religious works. But occasionally the word does come in handy: in this case to describe Vladimir Tretchikoff's Chinese Girl (aka the Green Lady), a painting that is not only icon-like in style – the modeling is almost two-dimensional – but is also the most reproduced work in art history. So last year, when Giles Peppiatt, the Director of African Art, had a tip-off that the painting might be for sale, he boarded a plane for Chicago that afternoon in an attempt to secure it for his next sale. He was almost too late: "When I walked through the owner's front door, I saw a packing case in the hallway addressed to one of our competitors in South Africa. Obviously I came at the right time." The painting then sold at Bonhams New Bond Street last spring for £1m in a saleroom packed with bidders and television crews. "It wasn't the most valuable South African picture we have ever sold," says Giles, "but certainly it got us more publicity than any other."

It was not always thus. In 2006, when Peppiatt launched the department, auctioning art from Africa was unexplored territory. "We began selling South African art about 10 years ago in topographical painting sales, and we noticed that the works did very well. So we thought, 'Let's have a stand-alone sale.' It has proved to be the most enormous success. We achieved almost four times our budget in the first year. I think the reason behind it was that London has the infrastructure, but more importantly, it is the art itself." Artists such as Irma Stern and Jacob Pierneef had never been seen much, and when shown alongside modern masters such as William Kentridge, Peppiatt says "people were amazed by the strength and depth. So those two things worked really well. Our top year was about three years ago, when we turned over more than £10m – more than the total turnover of the art market in South Africa and the biggest sales of South African art in the world."

Having conquered that market, it seemed a natural progression to hold sales of art from the rest of Africa. Impressive survey shows at MoMA in New York and the arrival of curators at the Tate dedicated specifically to works from the 'hot continent' made African art a sought-after area. "It was a bit of an experiment really," says Giles, "but it has been such a success. It is extraordinary how much interaction we get as a result of the sale. We have all sorts of people wanting to get involved, be they people from finance, mining, oil or gas. Because it is a great way to differentiate your business by being involved in art."

The sales include art from 15 African countries, but inevitably, when it comes to the economy, the powerhouse is Nigeria. "The country is the big wealth creator in sub-Saharan Africa and there are more Nigerian millionaires than anywhere else in the continent. It is not surprising that artists such as El Anatsui have moved from their homeland – in his case Ghana – to base themselves in Lagos. There are auction houses there, but they tend to deal with local artists. It's safe to say that all the major works now are sold in London, and also, because we hold the world records for African and South African
art, by Bonhams."

Peppiatt has taken a scenic route to his involvement in the trade. Born in Buckinghamshire, he went to Stowe, the school set in a 17th century stately home designed by Vanburgh, William Kent and Robert Adam among others. "It is the most beautiful school in the world," says Peppiatt. "The founding headmaster, J.F. Roxburgh, said that any boy who has been to Stowe will know beauty when he sees it. And it's true. " After reading sciences at St Andrews University, Peppiatt went into the City to work as a bond trader. "It was great training for being an auctioneer. I find that rattling off numbers doesn't bother me at all."

Giles joined the auction world in the early 1990s, which was a different era. One of his more memorable moments was a disastrous sale of provincial English poetry. "By the end, I was left with the vendor and a tramp who had come in out of the rain. With 10 lots to go, I said, 'If no one is interested, I will stop now.' Those days have long gone."

Besides the Tretchikoff, the most exciting picture that Peppiatt has sold was The Arab Priest by Irma Stern, which made a world record £3.1m. As he says, "It's a matter of record that it was sold to Qatari museum authority. That was an amazing price, and I don't think it will be beaten for quite some time. I also feel that it was one of Stern's very best pictures – she chose to have it on the front page of her book about Zanzibar." Other highlights include one of El Anatasui's bottle-top hangings, which fetched a world record for any piece of contemporary African art. Peppiatt doesn't expect the momentum to stop. "The last sale set 20 new world records. I think probably we will set as many in May."

Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

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