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Julie Mehretu has set a new auction record for an African-born artist. At the Sotheby’s Hong Kong contemporary evening sale last week (5 October) an untitled 2001 diptych by Mehretu, who was born in Ethiopia and lives in the US, sold for $9.32m (with fees). This result far surpassed a record previously held by South African artist Marlene Dumas (in 2008, Dumas’s 1995 work The Visitor sold for £3.17m or $6.33m at Sotheby’s London).
Unlike in the broader market, the top prices for African artists at auction are generated by women. Two other artists in this top tier are the South African artist Irma Stern and the Nigerian American artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby.
As the contemporary African art market heats up (according to ArtPrice, $63m was spent on work by African-born artists in 2022—a $15m year-on-year increase), there have been worries about growing speculation, flipping and price corrections. Despite this, the market for Mehretu is consistently strong, according to the head of Sotheby’s Modern and contemporary African art department, Hannah O’Leary. “Her following has never faltered but rather has gone from strength to strength—as [the] result clearly illustrates,“ she tells The Art Newspaper.
While the last five years have been marked by a surge of interest in figurative painting in particular, O’Leary believes “we are moving beyond that initial phase to something more discerning”.
“While young artists are still popular, recently collectors have become more interested in mature artists such as Ouattara Watts and Seni Awa Camara, as well as modernists such as Ben Enwonwu and Gerard Sekoto. This is helped by the creation of new contemporary art museums on the continent, such as Zeitz MOCAA and the Norval Foundation, as well as Western museums such as the Tate and the Pompidou, who are actively collecting contemporary art from Africa,” she adds.
Mehretu, who is of both Ethiopian and Jewish heritage, was born in Addis Ababa in 1970 before moving to Michigan in the US midwest as a child and eventually settling in New York. Last week’s record-breaking work previously sold for $2.89m at Christie’s New York in 2015, and so has seen a 227% increase.
Mehretu’s work first hit six-figures at auction in 2010 at the infamous Lehman Brothers sale. After the storied Manhattan institution filed for bankruptcy in 2008 at the apex of the financial crisis, its corporate collection was sold off at Sotheby’s New York. Mehretu’s 2001 work UntitledI went for $1.02m.