The 4th Modern and Contemporary East African Art Auction, held this year at the Hotel Intercontinental, was much anticipated after the success of the first three art auctions, curated by Circle Art Gallery’s Danda Jaroljmek since 2013.
This year’s auction was equally, if not more successful having netted a minimum of KSh19.154 million and still counting since some bidders are calling Danda a day after the auction officially closed in hopes of negotiating with the gallery and the artist to reach a price for a particular work that is amenable to everyone.
But even so, monetary value is not the only measure of success. Indeed, what I found most significant about last Monday night’s open market on East African contemporary and modern art was that increasingly, buyers are recognizing the immense investment potential in the purchase of our regional art.
Without doubt, Circle’s art auction is providing the broadest and most diverse and breathtaking platform for revealing the astonishing talent, imagination and fine artistry of painters and sculptors, printmakers and photographers in a region that we found included seven countries, namely Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan and Ethiopia as well as Seychelles and Zimbabwe. (Then too there was one lone and lovely work from Congo).
What this art auction revealed to me was the sort of trust that quite a few local and international art collectors have in Circle Art and its auction. For what the Gallery itself pointed out in a recent press release is that it single-handedly has built up a so-called ‘secondary market’ where art collectors can feel free to bring in artworks acquired in the past to put up for resale.
Indeed, dozens of individuals brought in mainly paintings but also a few sculptures in the last year for Circle to auction off; the assumption being the collectors were bound to be blessed with a substantial profit, or at least see a significant difference between what they originally paid for their artwork and what they will receive after their piece was auctioned by the professional British auctioneer, Dendy Easton who came back to Kenya to preside over his fourth art auction late last month (Feb. 27).
Not all the collectors who brought in artworks to be auctioned had originally bought their piece for its ‘investment potential’. For instance, Geraldine Robarts had been lecturing in fine art at Makerere University’s Margaret Trowell’s School of Fine Art when she bought a beautiful painting by her fellow lecturer, the Zanzibari-Iranian painter Ali Hussein Darwish in the early 1970s.
“I bought his painting because he was a dear friend and I loved his art,” said Geraldine who never planned to resell Darwish’s work entitled ‘Forest’. But as she witnessed last Monday, the painting sold for many times more (KSh587,000) than what she originally paid for it.
But like so many art collectors who buy art not as an investment but simply out of love for the work, the discovery of how much his work sold for also made her realize that if she had held on to it longer, it most likely would be worth a whole lot more than that.
Nonetheless, a number of art collectors who re-sold their art at the auction this year earned relatively fair sums and had no regrets about selling art that they’d invested in years before. For instance, Peterson Kamwathi’s ‘Bull’, painted in or around 2005 sold for Ksh763,100 while the resale of Gakunju Kaigwa’s Vermont marble bust for Ksh704,400 assumedly satisfied the person who gave up this gorgeous stone bust which Kaigwa created after warming up to marble while studying in Carrara, Italy where the marble is plentiful.
And even Marc van Rampelberg’s resale of his two rare Edward Saidi Tingatinga paintings was proof that East African art can increasingly be seen as an outstanding long-term investment. For while one of the two paintings by the acclaimed Tanzanian artist that he brought to Circle for resale earned more than a million shillings, the other earned slightly less at KSh774,840, which still secured the Belgian art collector a fairly good profit.
But as attractive as such figures may seem, according to the former Sotheby’s auctioneer Dendy Easton, the prices for the artworks he has seen in the last four years have been extremely ‘affordable’ as compared to prices of art in South Africa from where he had just flown or even in Nigeria or London where he conducted auctions at Sotheby’s prestigious auction house for more than 30 years, after which he consulted for Bonham’s Auction House and elsewhere.
“The quality of the art that Danda selects is as good, if not better than the art I have seen in South and West Africa,’ said Easton. He agrees that the Circle Art Auction is amplifying the value of East African art internationally, but he’s still slightly amazed that such excellent artwork can sell at what he described as ‘affordable’ prices by comparison to international sales.
Easton’s observation might surprise some Kenyans, especially when they learn that several artworks sold at the auction for more than a million shillings each. For instance, Rashid Diab’s fire engine red painting entitled ‘Too Tasteful’ garnered ksh1,408,800 just as the auction was coming to a close. The other million-shilling-man was Yassir Ali Mohammed, the Kenya-based Sudanese artist whose monumental grid painting, carefully covered in iconic hieroglyphic images and entitled ‘Windows of my Soul’ also sold for more than KSh1.1 million. And the third record-holder was the Tingatinga piece resold by van Rampelberg which also brought in more than KSh1 million.
The works of Kenyan artists may not have sold for quite as much, but many came close, as evidenced by the works of Kamwathi and Gakunju. For instance, the large (200 x 300 cms.) untitled cityscape painting by the late Omosh Kindeh ala Eric Omondi sold for KSh962,580, all of which will go to the family of the much loved artist who’d been based for many years at the Kuona Trust.
Yet at the same time as some of the resales went relatively well, there were at least ten out of the 54 artworks that went on the auction block Monday night, that were brought back by the Gallery without a sale, the reason being the bidding didn’t reach the ‘reserve’ or minimum bid required.
That’s why the artworks of East Africans like Paul Onditi, Edward Njenga, Jimnah Kimani, John Diang’a, Morris Foit, Jak Katarikawe and even the late Robin Anderson (who co-founded Gallery Watatu in the late 1960s with Yony Waite, whose works were also resold at the auction) among others, didn’t sell. The bids on works by these outstanding and important artists were simply too low to allow them to go ‘for a song.’
What the bidders may not have realized was the intrinsic value of these rare works of art. For instance, Robin’s batik print of Maasai women on silk is a precious piece of East African art and if bidders had been more aware of the history of Kenyan art, there should have had a bidding war to own the piece.
Equally, if the bidders had been aware of the privileged place that artists like Diang’a, Jimnah, Jak, Morris Foit and Edward Njenga hold in Kenyan contemporary culture, they might have appreciated these early works of the artists. For instance, Diang’a’s massive relief sculpture is cemented into the entrance of Kenya’s national Parliament, making it one of the first public art pieces by a Kenyan artist. Jimnah’s paintings literally fill the walls of practically all the Java Coffee Houses in Kenya, and Njenga (who’s still sculpting at age 94) is one of the country’s earliest social realist sculptors. In other words, the public may not yet understand that the early works by all of these artists could be seen as long-term investments, pieces that can do nothing but accrue in value over time.
In any case, the other winners of the art auction besides the collectors who entered their art in Circle’s secondary art market, were the artists who shared their work directly with Circle, or in some cases through their gallery. Of course, the Circle gets a commission on all the works sold at the auction but a little less than half the art that Dendy Easton auctioned off the other night came originally from local artists like Dennis Muraguri, Ephraim Solomon, Onyis Martin and Tahir Karmali among others.
Nonetheless, the Kenyan artist, Sane Wadu, whose charming watercolor-on-paper painting entitled ‘The Big Race’, sold on the secondary market at the auction for KSh111,580. Sane recalled that particular painting had probably sold in the 1980s for around ksh20,000. His observation implicitly confirmed what we’re saying about the long-term investment value of East African art.
But Sane further noted that of the artist won’t be receiving a penny from the resale of their art.
“In some countries, it’s the case that when art is resold, there’s a small percentage that goes back to the original artist, but not in Kenya,” he said.
“Back then the artist was a poor man, and unfortunately, still today, the same artist is poor,” he added. Still Sane’s not begrudging of the art auction or the collector who earns a profit off his work, but he does wish the Laws in Kenya could be changed to enable artists to obtain royalties for the resales of their art.