In a sign that the market for African art is going from strength to strength, Sotheby’s announced on Monday, 20 June, that it is launching sales dedicated to art from the continent in London early next year.

The auction house has appointed Hannah O’Leary as its head of Modern and contemporary African art, a new department based in London. O’Leary comes from Bonhams, where she held the same position as her new role since 2010. Her first auction as head of the department at Bonhams in March 2011 fetched more than £8.7m and remains the highest total ever for a sale of South African art. Before that, O’Leary helped pioneer the early sales of African art at Bonhams, which began in 2008.

Maarten Ten Holder, the managing director of Sotheby’s Europe, describes the African art scene as “thriving”. He adds: “As our sales develop in 2017, we anticipate that we will establish a significant profile in this field, while also looking to enhance our presence on the African continent.” In an indication of the direction her first sales at Sotheby’s will take, O’Leary will be holding appraisals in Cape Town and Johannesburg in June and July.

O’Leary says the Sotheby’s auctions will “provide an unprecedented platform for Modern and contemporary African art”. Of the market, she says there is “enormous untapped potential”. “Together we are perfectly poised to explore it to the full,” she says.

Until now, Bonhams has been the only major auction house in the West to hold sales dedicated to Modern and contemporary African art. Last year, to coincide with Frieze London and 1:54 African art fair, Bonhams launched an October sale dedicated solely to contemporary art from Africa. Its May sale is now focused on Modern African art. There are plans to hold a contemporary sale again in October this year.