Thursday, September 24, 2009


by Prof. Bruce Onobrakpeya

being text of speech given at a reception organized by old students of St. Gregory’s College, Lagos, in the United States to the The St. Gregory’s College Alumni Foundation, in New York, on 16th August 2008, where Dr. Onobrakpeya was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award ).

More than ever before, the climate is very favourable for investing in Nigerian art. Nigerian art, traditional and modern, is regarded as some of the best in the world and our artists are creating masterpieces which are being collected in Nigeria and all over the world. There can be no better time than now for anyone intending to invest to step in and make his mark.

But why invest in Nigerian art of all art in the first instance? After all there are various areas open to investment opportunities in our dear country which has been variously described as an emerging market of late. The answer to this may not be far fetched. The very word ‘invest’ means there is a return to be expected by the investor. Art has also earned the reputation, in the way stocks do as commodity that holds value and appreciates over time, and traded when the need arises. Then, I would say, Nigerian art is a unique brand of art. Since the British invasion of Benin a little over a century ago, Nigerian art has come to be appreciated and sought after by collectors all over the world. The Benin and Ife bronze, the Nok terra cotta, the Igbo Ukwu artifacts, to mention a few, are some example of the traditional exquisite art of Nigeria to be found in leading museums in the world. We also have the work of Ben Enwonwu, Erhabor Emokpae, Lamidi Fakeye, Uche Okeke, Yusuf Grillo, and a host of others representing modern and contemporary Nigerian art in the collection of connoisseurs.

Billionaire Paul Getty, a great art collector in his lifetime described fine art as the finest investment one can make. Could he have exaggerated? He spoke of a particular painting he bought for $200 but was worth about a million dollars or thereabout some twenty-five years later. This is how art could sometimes be. In Nigeria, there are different fora where art collectors and artists meet. There are galleries with secondary art market facilities that have emerged on the scene and the art market is fairly organized. The sale of art works has now entered the phase of auctions which help to determine the actual value of works.

Buying or investing in art wisely, though not requiring specialized skills, yet is very necessary for one to go about it carefully especially if one is a novice. An individual must first make up his mind about what media and periods please him most. He should then learn about them, and the more he learns the better. Even people with modest budgets could buy of art that could turn out to be excellent investments in beauty, pleasure and, also in the financial sense. I know several individuals who have paid token prices for works of art, and have then watched the value of their art balloon. This is because it is often possible to buy good art from relatively unknown and lesser artists, and before long the fortune of the artists change and their pieces collected at modest prices suddenly appreciate in value. I also know of Nigerians and foreigners who anytime they are traveling out of Nigeria come to my gallery to buy low priced art. On getting to their destination, they sell the art at good profit.

There is a warning to sound with regard to what I have discussed above. It has to do with the issue of fakes. Fakes, counterfeits or copies exist in Nigeria as they exist elsewhere and this is for the simple reason that people would want to acquire at all cost art pieces of successful artists.

Investing in Nigerian art could be taken to another level different from merely buying art pieces. Investing in art could come in the form of provision of the right equipment, facilities and infrastructure for the artists to work with. Permit me to refer you to what I am doing back home in Nigeria. The Harmattan Workshop is an annual workshop that takes place every year in my home town in Agbarha Otor, Delta state. It is the only informal education setup for the visual art in Nigeria and has been in existence since 1998. We have been privileged to have some individuals and corporate organizations partner with us in this regard, of which the Ford Foundation is in the forefront. Opportunities still abound in the area of provision of other infrastructural facilities like museums especially for modern and contemporary art, biennales like we have in other Dakar, Senegal, Paris, France, India and Brazil. These are areas that are waiting for private investment initiatives and I can say that investors will reap handsomely in these areas. Nigerian artists want exposure through exhibitions abroad. Investors would be rewarded for it when they come into contractual agreement with Nigerian artists.

Over the years (since Nigeria’s independence in 1960), individuals like Sammy Olagbaju, Omo Oba Yemisi Shyllon, Emmanuel Olisambu, Rasheed Gbadamosi, etc, have invested a lot of money to build up enviable collections of works of art. Some have even established NGOs dedicated to art. Taken together, these constitute huge investments in Nigerian Art.

Another impetus towards investment in Nigerian art came with the introduction of art auctions, the first of which was conducted by the Nimbus Gallery at the Muson Centre about five years ago. A second public auction organized by Contemporary Art House at the new Civic Centre, Victoria Island, Lagos, in April this year fetched super prices. The event triggered off a wave of new consciousness about art as investment. As the news spread, people like Kenny DaSilva (an old Gregorian) started to dust up pieces which had been lying carelessly in his house. Mr. Remi Lasaki, a stock broker immediately called an art valuer to help assess the value his art. Artists were challenged to produce better pieces, and for the first time in Nigeria, the worth of art works, as real valuables to be desired more than the decorative purposes attached to them, dawned on people. But significantly, dealers and collectors were encouraged to invest more in art with the assurance that sales with good profit were guaranteed.

Another big step with regards to investing in Nigerian art has to do with the renaissance our culture is experiencing as it pertains to celebrating festivals. It involves the use of art by villages, towns, clans and even in our big cities as part of cultural events. A good example is art works in the Osun Grove at Oshogbo which attract a large number of people for all year round sight seeing. These art works include large sculptures, some free standing while others are worked into buildings. They were created by Susane Wenger, the Austrian born lady who has been living in Nigeria for over fifty years. The number of visitors to the town increased when the Osun Grove was given the status of World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The Oshogbo success story has inspired both the people and the government to invest in art as a way of empowering the citizenry through tourism.

In the light of the above, here are some basics rules to observe when contemplating investing in Nigerian Art. First, collect works which you like to enjoy. If such works are by contemporary artists, make sure they are signed. The older an art work is the more valuable it becomes; works of older or more matured artists tend to be more expensive. In other works, the name of the artist determines the worth of the works. Art works documented in books and the mass media have better chances of fetching higher prices. All works sent for auctions should have the provenance that would help authenticate them. If you encounter art which look like the Nok Terra Cotta, Ife, Benin or Igbo Ukwu bronzes which you suspect to be very old, show them to the Nigerian Museum or antiquities department where possible. Use the services of experts to evaluate your pieces.
To conclude, I would like to say that we are witnessing a revolution which makes investing in Nigerian Art both pleasurable and profitable. Let us be a part of it.

Thank you.

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