Art

Hybrid art auction earns Sh23 million

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Jason Jabbor, an art enthusiast at Radisson Blu Arboretum Hotel. November 9, 2021. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NMG

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Summary

  • Art buyers spent Sh23.18 million on Tuesday at an auction held in Nairobi’s Radisson Blu Arboretum.
  • The 9th Art Auction East Africa organised by Circle Art Gallery defied pandemic fears of slow spending on collectibles.
  • Serious bidders made a pitch for E.S Tingatinga’s Untitled ‘Rhino’ painting which was finally sold for Sh3.17 million. 

Art buyers spent Sh23.18 million on Tuesday at an auction held in Nairobi’s Radisson Blu Arboretum.

The 9th Art Auction East Africa organised by Circle Art Gallery defied pandemic fears of slow spending on collectibles.

Serious bidders made a pitch for E.S Tingatinga’s Untitled ‘Rhino’ painting which was finally sold for Sh3.17 million. 

Geoffrey Mukasa’s Untitled ‘Blue Beauties’ painting was sold at Sh2.6 million, Salah El Mur’s ‘Iris Flower’ for Sh1.6 million, and there was even a bidding war over Ehoodi Kichapi’s ‘Man against City’, with the winner paying Sh1.5 million for the oil on canvas Basquiat-like work created by Kichapi in 2008.

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Other notable sales included ‘A Kiss’, the second Tingatinga painting created by the late Tanzanian artist which went for Sh1.05 million, Peterson Kamwathi’s ‘Monument II’ for Sh798,320 and Cyrus Kabiru’s ‘Blue Mamba’ bicycle sculpture that sold for Sh821,800 which will be donated to Kabiru’s Art Orodha Art Centre. 

Cyrus’ was one of three donations. The other one was by the Ethiopian artist, Tamrat Gezahegne whose painting, ‘Adorned Body’ sold for Sh493,080, which will be donated to the African Arts Trust.  The other donated item that got auctioned off last night was a rare bottle of 26-year-old Glenfiddich whiskey which went for Sh50,000.

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Physical and online

This year’s art auction was a hybrid affair, meaning bidders were not only able to vie for their favourite art pieces in person with a paddle in hand.

They could also call in by phone, a method that has mostly been used by international bidders. They could even bid online through the popular art auction platform, Invaluable. 

“That’s what we did last October,” Danda Jaroljmek told BDLife a day before the auction.

“It was the first time we put the auction online and it worked very well,” added the founder-curator and executive director of both Circle Art Gallery and the Art Auction East Africa. The October auction was an experiment of sorts, given the Covid-19 lockdown was still on. 

But it proved that art lovers and prospective buyers did not need to be on hand to physically witness Kenyan auctioneer Chilson Wamoja handle all the lots of East African art (60 last Tuesday night) to take part in it from the comfort of their living room or bedroom.

Like so many businesses that had found Covid-19 to be both a curse and a blessing in disguise, Ms Jaroljmek, and her team had to learn lessons and new ways of working during the pandemic.

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“We were heading in that direction [of online auctioning] anyway, having seen how all the major auction houses, from Bonham’s to Sotheby’s, have been holding their auctions online for quite some time,” she said.

Nonetheless, October was a revelation that opened their eyes to the immense possibilities of conducting this hybrid art auction.

“We now have more bids coming in from all over the world,” said Chilson who has been conducting the auction for the last seven years. 

“We’ve always had international bidders, but the numbers have increased in the last couple of years,” he added.

Putting the art auction on the Invaluable online platform is one factor that has widened global awareness of East African art. It also allowed anyone who had registered with Invaluable to watch the entire auction and place their bids online in real time.

Don Handa, Circle Art’s gallery manager was watching the bids on the website as they came up at Invaluable, explained Ms Jaroljmek, and passed them onto Chilson who watched the phone lines as well as the bidders in the room at Radisson Blu.

The success of this year’s art auction which surpassed last year’s Sh22.2 million pre-Covid earnings, shows the growing interest in East African art.

There has been a steady increase of interest in East African art since the auction took off back in 2013. That interest has increasingly come from all over the world.

“We’ve heard from Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa as well as from Switzerland, France, Germany, UK, US, and Australia, and also Qatar and Dubai,” said Ms Jaroljmek.

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When asked by BDLife what she thought had caused the exponential fascination in regional art and the auction, she said there were many factors. One was signing on with Invaluable since many serious art collectors and investors are aware of the website and follow it closely. 

“We also signed on with Artsy [another leading art news online platform],” she added.

Another factor was social media, and the other big issue was the global trend of increasing interest in African art.

“There is little doubt that [art lovers] are following global trends in contemporary art,” she said.   “Previously, it was Chinese art, then came Indian art, and now, there’s new interest in African art. It’s had an impact on our work,” she added.

According to the local art collector and investor Tony Wainaina, Africa has gained greater attention in the global art world because it is accurately seen as “the last frontier” for exploring contemporary art.

Noting that not a week goes by without calls coming in from new voices expressing interest in East African art, Ms Jaroljmek added that art fairs have also had an impact in raising awareness that East African art exists.

In the last few years, she [often with her assistant Don Handa] has attended a score of art fairs, raising the profile of contemporary East African art in the process.

“Right now, we have a presence in art fairs in Paris and Dubai. And we just finished another one in London where works by Dickson Otieno, Shabu Mwangi, Tahir Karmali, Jackie Karuti as well as several Ugandans and Sudanese all did well,” she said, noting that all of Otieno’s wire-weave sculptures were sold.

Secondary market 

Ms Jaroljmek said nearly two-thirds of the works auctioned on Tuesday night came as part of the secondary market. Circle Art’s catalogues had detailed information about the art and the artist. 

It also mentioned who has the provenance or prior ownership of work and whether it had come from a private collection or directly from the artist him or herself. 

“Technically, most art auctions only include works from the secondary market,” said Ms Jaroljmek, who from the beginning has included original works coming from the artists themselves. 

Among them were several well-known local artists, including Sane Wadu, Cyrus Kabiru, Edward Njenga, Kaafiri Kariuki, Tabitha wa Thuku. Ehoodi Kichapi’s ‘Man against City’ came to Circle as part of the secondary. But either way, his painting surpassed all expectations in sales and elicited one of several dramatic bidding battles between those physically at the auction and those who were either online or on the phone. 

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But for Ms Jaroljmek, including art that comes from the artist is meant to nurture local talents as well as to cultivate a secondary market. 

“One way to promote the idea of art as a valuable investment is to cultivate a dynamic secondary market where collectors can come to sell their art and make a profit,” she explained.

For Mr Wainaina, more nurturing of the artists is needed to develop the local art scene further.

“We need more art dealers, agents, and first-class galleries,” he notes. 

But his other concern is the fact that there are many moneyed Kenyans who could easily be investing in East African art who do not. 

“These are people who still hang calendars on their walls as if they are works of art,” he said in a phone interview shortly before the auction.

“They need to learn there are other things to invest in besides land and shares,” said Mr Wainaina. He added that young Kenyans who have been abroad and gotten exposed to the international art world are more likely to attend an art auction and fill their walls at home with African art. But the older, more moneyed elites still need to be awakened to what they are missing.

Like Ms Jaroljmek, he noted that international auction houses have done their bit to arouse public interest in contemporary African art. However, he added that Bonham’s has been the best at conducting auctions focused on East African art while Sotheby’s is still keen with South African and West African art.

Still, both houses took the lead in putting African art auctions online and proving there is a market for the art.