Julie Mehretu Sets New Auction Record for an African-Born Artist With $9.32 M. Sale

A painting by Julie Mehretu was sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong last week for $9.32 million (with fees), setting a new auction record for an African-born artist. 

The sale far surpassed the previous record held by South African artist Marlene Dumas, whose 1995 work The Visitor sold in 2008 for $6.33 million at Sotheby’s London. Mehretu, who was born in Ethiopia and moved to the United States as a child, fetched her first six-figure at auction in 2010 at the Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy auction. 

The record-breaking piece that sold on October 5 was Untitled (2001). Demand for her work — typically large-scale abstraction which investigates recent world traumas — has only risen amidst a broader surge of interest in contemporary African art. According to ArtPrice, $63 million was spent on art from African-born artists in 2023 alone. Notable for the general art market, women artists lead sales, with Nigerian American artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby and South African artist Irma Stern consistently near the top.

The growing collector base is due, in part, to the vibrant growth of the African art scene. West African countries such as Nigeria and Ghana in particular have in the last decade welcomed new commercial spaces including Gallery 1957 in Accra, Ghana, and Galerie Cécile Fakhoury in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. 

Touria El Glaoui, founding director of the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, told ARTnews in 2022 that the opening of these spaces has heralded “a visibility moment” for generations of African art.