The African Artist with the Most Expensive Painting? You Pick

Time and again I have googled most expensive African artworks. So when I sat down to write a post about the artist with the most expensive painting sold at auction, I thought I would be writing about Irma Stern—in fact, my working title included her name. But after doing a little research on her, I wasn’t so sure she qualifies as an African artist in the sense I had in mind. So I moved on to Ethiopian-born artist Julie Mehretu, the artist with the most expensive painting after Stern. I was still not satisfied—she left Ethiopia when she was seven. I checked out the artist with the third most expensive painting: Marlene Dumas. But Marlene, among other things, has dual nationality—she became a naturalized Dutch when she was 36 years old. I know Njideka Akunyili Crosby has a record for over $3 million and I thought this is one person who belongs here. Then I remembered that, just like the others, she too left the continent before she started her career.

Hence, I decided to give you the facts (and figures) for the top four and let you decide who is truly the ‘African’ artist with the most expensive painting sold at auction. By the way, did you notice they are all females?

Irma Stern for Arab Priest (1945) sold at $4.8 million in March 2011

Credit: Irma Stein Museum

Irma Stern (1894 – 1966), painter, ceramicist and collector, was born in Schweizer-Reneke, a town in former South African province of Transvaal, to German Jewish parents, who had moved to Africa in 1886. During the South African war (1899-1902), Irma and her brother were taken by their mother to Cape Town while their father was in detention because of his pro-Boer leanings. He was released before the end of the war, and the family relocated to Germany. Subsequently, the family traveled frequently to South Africa.

In 1912, Stern settled in Berlin and attended the Weimar Academy where she studied art. In 1914, she trained at the Levin-Funcke Studio and, a couple of years after, she met the German Expressionist, Max Pechstein, who greatly influenced her style and supported her first solo exhibition in Berlin in 1916. She returned to Cape Town in 1920 and had her first South African exhibition at the Ashbey Gallery. Stern travelled widely across Africa, and in 1927 she settled in Cape Town, where she died on 23 August 1966.

In the 1950s, Irma Stern donated her work, Arab in Black (1939), to The Treason Trial Defence Fund, Johannesburg to fund Nelson Mandela’s legal defence.

Julie Mehretu for Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation (2001) sold at $4.6 million in 2013

Picture by Ruven Afanador

Julie Mehretu (b. 1970), painter, was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to an Ethiopian father and an American mother. The family fled Ethiopia in 1977 to escape the Socialist dictatorship regime and moved to East Lansing, Michigan, United States. She began her education at East Lansing High School and went on to study art at Kalamazoo College, a liberal-arts school in Michigan. Whilst in college, she spent a year at the University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, Senegal, where she learned the Wolof language, studied batik-making with local artisans, and re-affirmed the sense of her African heritage.

In 1999, Mehretu settled in New York and was part of a group show at Exit Art, in SoHo. Subsequently, Mehretu has had several group and solo shows. In 2016, she exhibited at Gebre Kristos Desta Center, Modern Art Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Marlene Dumas for The Teacher (1987) sold at $3.3 million in 2005

Credit: Saatchi Gallery

Marlene Dumas (b. 1953), painter, was born in Cape Town. She grew up during the apartheid era in Jacobsdal at her father’s winery in Kuilsrivier, South Africa. Choosing a university where English is used to teach rather than Afrikaans, she studied art at the University of Cape Town from 1972 to 1975. At 23, Dumas won a scholarship to study at Atelier ‘63 in Haarlem, Netherlands, where she, later, taught at an artist-led postgraduate programme.

Since late 1970s, Dumas has lived and worked in Amsterdam. She had her first solo exhibition at Gallery Helen van der Meij / Paul Th. Andriesse in Amsterdam in 1983. She has exhibited widely internationally and a few times in South Africa. She has dual nationality—she was granted Dutch citizenship in 1989. In an interview with W Magazine in 2008, Dumas said of her first years in Holland, while apartheid was at its peak in her homeland, “I thought that there was probably nothing worse you could be than a white South African.”

Njideka Akunyili Crosby for The Beautyful Ones (2012) sold at $3.07m in 2017

Image Credit: Jason Wyche © Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Picture Credit: Wiki Commons

Njideka Akunyili Crosby (b. 1983), visual artist, was born in Enugu, Nigeria to Nigerian parents. Her mother was Dora Akunyili, the former Director General of National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and Nigerian Minister of Information and Communications. Akunyili Crosby attended high school at Queen’s College, Lagos, Nigeria. In 1999, her mom won the United States green card lottery for the family and Akunyili Crosby moved to the state, when she was 16, ostensibly to study medicine. But when she was not accepted at Johns Hopkins University, she ended up studying biology and art at Swarthmore College where she graduated in 2004. She returned to Nigeria for her National Youth Service year, and then went back to the States to continue her studies. She earned a Post-Baccalaureate Certificate from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia in 2006 and a Master’s degree in fine arts from Yale University in 2011.

After Yale, she participated in several group exhibitions and was selected as Artist-In-Residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Akunyili Crosby had her first of many solo exhibitions at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles in 2015. She currently lives and works in Los Angeles.


Adekemi is a lawyer and writer with a passion for the arts, particularly African art history. She is dedicated to discovering and documenting the most excellent artworks of our time. Follow her on Twitter at adekemitweets.
Scroll to top