By Tajudeen Sowole
The source or history of an art piece, known in art lexicon as provenance, is on the verge of casting credibility shadow on one of the sales from a Lagos auction.At both ends of what could be described as a high profile provenance challenge are two parties that are well revered in contemporary Nigerian art appreciation and promotion.
Across the art world, provenance or authentication is sometimes very complex; could ruin auction house or a dealer’s credibility if not properly handled. Seated in the expansive living room of his residence, on a wet morning in November 2012, one of Nigeria’s leading art collectors, Mr. Sammy Olagbaju could not hide his anger. He explained to his guest how a Lagos auction house, ArtHouse Contemporary Limited ignored his demand for provenance of a painting – Lot 10 titled Negritude, by Late Ben Enwonwu.
As he had explained a day earlier, Olagbaju restated that Lot 10, a print, which was sold during one of the auction house’s past sales, is a print of an Untitled piece, by the same artist, and in his (Olagbaju’s) collection.He argued that Lot 10 could not have existed without an original. “Where is the original of Negritude sold at ArtHouse auction’s May 2012 sales?” He therefore alleged that the Untitled in his house is “the original work” of Lot 10. Olagbaju also said “I never made a print of the work.”Mounted in his living room, facing his guest was Olagbaju’s Untitled, a similar piece as Lot 10. On the table where Olagbaju and his guest were sitting was the catalogue of ArtHouse’s auction May 7, 2012. Lot 10, printed on page 16 of the catalogue is though similar, but one could easily note the difference: similarity in figural contents, but not the same in colour renditions.
Apparently, the two works are not exactly the same; one is not the original or print of the other. And if Olagbaju’s Untitled is not (and cannot pass as) the original of Lot 10, why was he demanding for provenance of the latter? He insisted that having a similar piece of his collection elsewhere was enough reason for him to demand provenance, particularly when the other work auctioned is a print. Reason: “I don’t want anybody to challenge the originality of any of my donations in the future,” he explained. His interest in art, he stated, is a long time one such as donating his works to institutions and galleries. For instance, “I have made arrangement to donate several works to the Pan African University, Ajah, Lagos. My interest therefore lies in a long time one, and I like to donate more works to galleries and institutions in Nigeria.”
|Controversial Lot 10 Negritude (print) by Ben Enwonwu, auctioned at ArtHouse May 2010 sales.|
He said he had called the attention of ArtHouse to his observation and got no response. In a letter dated August 23, 2012 and addressed to Mrs. Kavita Chellaram of
ArtHouse Contemporary Ltd, under the heading ‘ArtHouse Auction Of Modern and Contemporary Art March 1 2010, Lagos,’ Olagbaju wanted to know details of the work. He writes: “I asked for details of the print: who had offered it for Auction and who had bought it.” As at the time of hosting his guest, Olagbaju said he was yet to get any response from ArtHouse.
Sorting ArtHouse’s side of the issue via e-mail exchanges with the CEO, Mrs. Chellaram, it was gathered that Lot 10 went through all the necessary processes to ensure its authenticity. “Normal due diligence was conducted at the time,” Chellaram explained. She noted that “It is known that Enwonwu produced prints of many of his works,” and added “as far as we know he did not maintain a complete record of his works and prints.” Although she agreed that Olagbaju's work and Lot 10 “are very similar,” but argued “they are not identical. The Lot in question cannot, therefore, be a print of Mr. Olagbaju's work.”
While it cannot be disputed that the works are merely similar and not identical or exactly the same, it is perhaps, crucial at the stage to know the source or the origin of Lot 10. On whose behalf ArtHouse contemporary auctioned the work? Chellaram said “it was consigned to be sold by a reputable dealer.”
Record showed that Lot 10 was auctioned by ArtHouse for hammer price N220,000. Although the contentious painting is yet to be proven as a print from a likely “fake” Enwonwu‘s Untitled currently in Olagbaju’s collection, but his “undisputable” claim of owning an “original copy” was stressed. He explained the source of his work: “I bought the work from late Enwonwu before he died. I don’t have the exact date though, but no one is disputing the authenticity of the picture with me.”
|Sammy Olagbaju’s Untitled (original) by Late Ben Enwonwu|
Like many masters, living or departed, Enwonwu did works of similar features and series. Could the two works in this issue of provenance be among such works with similar features? Olagbaju disagreed: “Even Enwonwu in his grave would talk when he hears such argument.” He insisted that Lot 10 “is not the kind of work he did; it’s not likely at all.”
At the media preview of most ArtHouse auctions, since 2009, verification and provenance of works were always discussed extensively. On each of such previews, ArtHouse always assured of the integrity of the Lots on auction. It was learnt that the auction house always rejected works that were not properly verified. In fact, a source close to Arthouse disclosed that when a Gani Odutokun’s piece, Untitled (1988 oil on board), which sold at the May 7, 2010 auction for N1.7 million was later disowned by the late artist’s wife, the work was recalled, the buyer compensated with another work and the difference in prices sorted out amicably. The “fake” piece, it was disclosed was bought from a late dealer (names withheld) who used to have a gallery at Lekki, Lagos
And quite curious: two sources, during investigation into the likely origin of Lot 10 revealed that the work in dispute was consigned by the same gallery owner, who was alleged to have sold the fake Odutokun piece to ArtHouse. Such revelation appears to strengthen Olagbaju’s suspicion that Lot 10 is, possibly, print from a fake of his Untitled. Therefore one may ask: is the fake of Olagbaju’s Untitled waiting somewhere to be reproduced into more prints?
As galleries, dealers, auctioneers and individual collectors keep falling victims of fake art works, ArtHouse, a premiere auction house in Nigeria, which has single handedly raised the value of Nigerian art to an unprecedented height, in just four years, appears not insulated from provenance challenges. Chellaram explained her organisation’s innocence and intention: “As far as I am able, I have done all within my power to ensure the integrity of Arthouse, promote art and artists and to try to grow the secondary market for art in Nigeria.”
Olagbaju and Chellaram seem to share the common goal of protecting the growing Nigerian art market from the infiltration of fake dealers, but the two art patrons are sadly being drawn in the opposition directions. For example, Enwonwu’s work is highly in demand at auctions, home and the Diaspora. And aside the current battle to get to the root of Lot 10’s provenance, Olagbaju said being a member of trustees of Ben Enwonwu Foundation (BEF) “I have the responsibility to safeguard the reputation of the artist, not just about one work, I have the right to stop anyone to produce fake prints.”
And as Olagbaju threatened a possible legal option should Arthouse refuses to disclose the source of Lot 10, the hope of an amicable settlement appeared when Oliver, the son of the late artist, promised to mediate. As at press time, there was hope that Oliver, who is the director of BEF and also President of Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) would intervene.
Fake works of masters such as Yusuf Grillo, Kolade Oshinowo, Muraina Oyelami and others who are highly in demand have been reported in the past, even when auction was not yet in the radar of the art market.