In a suburb of Lagos, Nigeria's business capital, Yemisi Shyllon lives in a house full of bronze statues of African tribal rulers and brightly colored beadwork landscapes. He may be Nigeria's biggest art collector, with some 6,000 pieces by his count. "I don't go out much," he says, "I have enough to look at here."
Mr. Shyllon, who runs an engineering company, is one of a small circle of Nigerian businessmen who own huge collections of local art. Sammy Olagbaju, a 70-year-old retired stockbroker who has lived in London and New York, is another avid collector. One Lagos-based banker has over 600 pieces.
With 250 ethnic groups and around 150 million people, Africa's most populous country has many sources of artistic inspiration. A number of artists from western Nigeria use the bright colors and beadwork of the Yoruba, south-east sometimes look to their region's uli style, with simpler drawings on walls or pots.
The collectors say their government cares little about preserving this artistic heritage. They share the cynicism of many Nigerians, who think the politicians are more eager to grab a share of the revenues of sub-Saharan Africa's biggest oil producer. Instead, the collectors prefer to put their own money into gathering and cataloguing thousands of works of art. "For me, this is a philanthropic act," says Mr. Olagbaju, who notes that Nigeria's top public galleries struggle with power cuts that leave masterpieces gathering dust in the dark.
More recently, these collectors have realized that they have also been canny investors. Their hobby has started to attract foreign attention - and cash. At an auction of African art in New York in March, the five most expensive lots were Nigerian. A painting by the late Ben Enwonwu went for $91,000.
Some buyers are speculating that the Nigerian works are still undervalued. Giles Peppiatt, director of contemporary African art at Bonhams, a British auction house that hosted the New York sale, says prices will rise in this niche market.
Auctions are also happening in Lagos, where oil and banking have made a few very rich, though most people still live in grinding poverty. "There's a lot of money in Nigeria," says Mr. Peppiatt. "And though it might sound cynical, money and art are inextricably linked."
Source: The Economist Online