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What is art’s worth in Ethiopia?

For the renowned sculptor and associate professor at Addis Ababa University’s Ale School of Fine Arts and Design, Bekele Mekonnen, the recent art pricing system in Ethiopia is wild at best. According to Bekele in other countries there are standards and regulations when prices are set; but that is not the case in Ethiopia. In other countries many stakeholders involve in the financial valuation of the artwork which includes auction houses, private and corporate collectors, curators, art dealers, gallery owners, experienced consultants and specialized market analysts.

A number of things are taken into consideration when determining the current value of an artwork. These include the portfolio of the artist, the cultural value of the artwork, past and predicted future monetary value of the work, season and the like. Unlike the case in Ethiopia, there is no arbitrary determination of prices, Bekele says. Furthermore, the artist also tried to add value by hiring curators, critics, publishing books, among other things. One thing important in setting the price according to Bekele is the artist’s background: that is their art portfolio.

According to Bekele, governments also regulate the art market through various methods and how the price is determined.  In Ethiopia, such an infrastructure does not exist, he argues. Only a number of galleries exist. There is shortage of critics, art dealers, consultants or market analysts. Generally, institutions which help in setting the right price are non-existent, according to Bekele. “It is arbitrary,” he says.

“The market is not consistent; artists with a similar quality of work, painting style might fetch different prices in the market. A recent graduate might give a price of 200 thousand birr for their work at times on a par with more than what established artists charge for their artwork,” Bekele says.

Since there is no measurement to regulate the price in today’s contemporary scene of Ethiopia, artists decide their own price. In the galleries of Addis, the average price for a piece of art is 20 thousand birr, while it can sometimes go as high as 50 thousand birr. Nevertheless, one might also find an artwork for a price as low as three thousand birr in the same galleries.

 

In special art venues like the annual Art of Ethiopia art fair, which is held in Sheraton Addis, prices can go as high as 500 thousand birr. Bekele says that artists who sell their artwork with less money in their studios double or triple the price without adding any values in such venues. It is not only with the annual art fair, Bekele says, but the artists add price arbitrarily monthly or annually. Looking at this trend he questions why one artist does add a price without adding value.

“Artists do not try to build themselves and also the market does not do anything to build value of artworks. It all depends on the goodwill of the artist and that is not healthy,” Bekele says. With this irregularity of the market there are international traders who come to Ethiopia to purchase the art with a little money and sell it to the international market. Especially, artists showing their work in such venues like the Gebrekirstos Desta Center sell their work for thousands of dollars, he explains.

Bekele says that in many countries how much one profit from selling one’s artwork is regulated; but in Ethiopian there is no such mechanism. Within these irregularities, one thing Bekele appreciate is the artists. He argues that the artists are benefiting from this and also Ethiopian collectors are growing in number. Even as an artist, Bekele says that he has been paid as much as one million birr for his work; he remembers that one of his paintings was sold for 10 thousand dollars recently to decorate the new U.S. Embassy building in Addis Ababa.

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