Julie Mehretu’s Masterpiece Sets New Auction Record for African-Born Artists at $9.32 Million

Julie Mehretus Masterpiece Sets New Auction Record for African Born Artists

Julie Mehretu, the Ethiopian-American artist renowned for her captivating abstract works, has achieved a historic milestone in the art world. At Sotheby’s Hong Kong contemporary evening sale on October 5, 2023, an untitled diptych created by Mehretu in 2001 took center stage and set a new auction record for an African-born artist. The remarkable artwork, which blends layers of meaning and depth, fetched an astounding $9.32 million, including fees.

Born in Ethiopia and now residing in the United States, Mehretu’s achievement has eclipsed the previous record held by South African artist Marlene Dumas. In 2008, Dumas’s 1995 masterpiece “The Visitor” commanded £3.17 million (equivalent to $6.33 million) at Sotheby’s London, a record that stood until now.

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What is particularly striking is the fact that, in contrast to the broader art market, the highest prices for African artists at auction are primarily driven by female artists. Alongside Julie Mehretu, South African artist Irma Stern and Nigerian American artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby are among the prominent names in this top tier.

The record-breaking sale of Mehretu’s artwork comes at a time when the contemporary African art market is experiencing exponential growth. According to ArtPrice, the total expenditure on works by African-born artists reached a staggering $63 million in 2022, marking a remarkable $15 million year-on-year increase. However, this rapid expansion has also raised concerns about speculation, flipping, and potential price corrections.

Nonetheless, the market for Julie Mehretu’s work has remained consistently robust. Hannah O’Leary, the head of Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary African Art department, commented on Mehretu’s enduring appeal, stating, “Her following has never faltered but rather has gone from strength to strength—as [the] result clearly illustrates.”

In recent years, there has been a notable surge of interest in figurative painting. However, O’Leary believes that the art world is now transitioning to a more discerning phase, emphasizing the growing appreciation for mature artists such as Ouattara Watts and Seni Awa Camara, as well as modernists like Ben Enwonwu and Gerard Sekoto. This shift is aided by the establishment of new contemporary art museums across Africa, including Zeitz MOCAA and the Norval Foundation, as well as Western institutions like the Tate and the Pompidou, which actively collect contemporary African art.

Julie Mehretu’s personal journey from Ethiopia to Michigan and eventually New York has been an integral part of her artistic evolution. Notably, the record-breaking artwork had previously sold for $2.89 million at Christie’s New York in 2015, reflecting an impressive 227% increase in value.

Mehretu’s initial breakthrough in the art world came in 2010 when her 2001 work “Untitled I” achieved a six-figure sum at auction during the Lehman Brothers sale. The Lehman Brothers’ corporate collection was auctioned off at Sotheby’s New York after the financial institution filed for bankruptcy in 2008 during the global financial crisis.

Julie Mehretu’s record-breaking achievement not only highlights her exceptional talent but also underscores the growing global recognition and demand for contemporary African art, signaling a bright future for artists from the continent on the international stage.

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