Silent art auction nets millions

Temptation by James Mbuthia at One off gallery.
Temptation by James Mbuthia at One off gallery. PHOTO | MARGRETTA WA GACHERU 

The Art Auction has increasingly become a popular phenomenon in Kenya.

There are the annual art auctions like those organised by the KSPCA and the Circle Art Gallery as well as those designed to benefit worthy causes like getting young Kibera footballers to Sweden to participate in an international youth football tournament.

But the auction held over the past month at One Off Gallery was a kind rarely seen here. It was a Silent Auction, an idea suggested by One Off’s curator-director Carol Lees after hearing from a client, the German art collector, Anja Lohmueller that she was leaving the country after living here off and on for the past eight years.

Anja is actually based in Berlin where she runs a successful advertising agency. But the success has now compelled her to spend far more time back home where she has a house already full to overflowing with fine art from all over the world.



Thus, she felt she had no choice but to sell all her beautiful paintings and sculptures by Kenyans that she has accumulated over the last few years.

“I also felt it would be best for the works to remain in the country for others to enjoy,” Anja said just moments before the marathon closing of the auction took off this past Sunday from 4pm until after 8pm.

Having bought much of the art during her early days in Nairobi, Anja’ s collection reflects what essentially constitutes ‘early works’ by amazing Kenyan artists including everyone from Peter Elungat, Peter Ngugi, Richard Kimathi, James Mbuthia and John Kamicha to Kamicha’s dad Zachariah Mbutha, Michael Wafula, Sibylla Martin, El Tayeb, Michael Soi, Beatrice Wanjiku and Fred Abuga.

The collection’s online presence also included art by Timothy Brooke, Maasai Mbili, Charles Ngatia, Anthony Wanjau, John Silver, Willie Wambugu, Morris Foit and Salah Ammar.

Final figures of sales are not yet in as we go to press, but if one includes sales of Anja’s ‘tribal art’, I estimate that the collection sold for more than Sh4m.

One thing that made this silent auction so exceptional was the fact that the actual bidding was both from the floor (among smart art collectors who’d come to actually buy works which had been online at the OneOff website for nearly a month) and those hooked up to One Off’s What’s App link so they could be almost instantaneously part of the bidding.

Bidding wars

What made this dual-bidding process so fascinating was that ‘bidding wars’ went on both among the on-site bidders and the online ones, all of which was witnessed blow-by-blow since One Off’s Dominic Martin had hooked up a TV monitor so that those present could watch the ‘wars’ unfold.

Some of the biggest bidding bouts were for prized works by Richard Kimathi, Fred Abuga, Michael Soi and Anthony Wanjau. Nonetheless, many of the sales were bargains even as a few didn’t sell at all.

This was largely because starting bids were higher than buyers were willing to pay.

One such work was by Elungat whose piece had a starting bid of Sh600,000. Yet neither the collector nor the curator were sad it didn’t sell since OneOff consistently sells Elungat’s art for quite a bit more than 600K.

Thus it would have been ‘a steal’ for anyone alert to the resale value of Kenyan art.

As it was, there were buyers and bidders at the closing Sunday sale closing from as far as Hong Kong, Bangkok, Kuwait, the US and the UK as well as from all over Kenya, which made One Off’s silent auction a fascinating event.

For me, what was especially rewarding about viewing Anja’s collection was the opportunity to see how much Kenyan artists have developed their styles and subject matter from the last decade.

Meanwhile, Banana Hill Gallery is currently hosting a beautiful exhibition of naturalistic and figurative art by the South Sudanese artist Stephen Lobalu.

A graduate of the University of Sudan’s School of Fine Art, Lobalu has exhibited his works all over Europe and the States as well as around East Africa, including Kenya where he’s shown his work at Paa ya Paa Art Centre.

Finally, tomorrow at The Art Space, the long-awaited works of Gakunju Kaigwa and Justus Kyalo will be on display. Both artists are innovative and experimental, each working with different media which will be discussed further next week.


Also, the Financial Times and the Oppenheimer Fund have mounted a global arts initiative and competition entitled ‘Emerging Voices 2016’.

If interested in taking part in this competition, contact Shine Tani at [email protected] for further details.