For a lover of fine art, an opportunity to watch an art auction is comparable to the way a football fan must feel when he or she gets to watch their favourite team engage in a much-anticipated football duel.
Either way, the occasion is a thrill.
That is what one art critic felt when she learned she could not attend the 10th-anniversary edition of Circle Art’s Art Auction East Africa in person on November 8, because all the seats at the Nairobi gallery were fully booked.
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But she could watch it online, and potentially get admitted among all the others who were intent on bidding for this year’s assemblage of East African art.
Having only attended one ‘hybrid’ art auction before, (hybrid meaning witnessing and bidding in person, online, or by phone), the critic had previously been in the room, not online while the auction took place.
“The pandemic taught gallerists how effective online activity can be,” Thaddu Tewa, a previous art auction volunteer told BDLife.
“Even before Covid-19, they were accepting bids by phone and WhatsApp, so the format wasn’t new,” he said.
But this year’s art auction was new in a sense. It was the first time it took place inside the gallery itself. Previously, it happened in a five-star hotel.
But since so many Circle Art Gallery clients are either out of the country, out of Nairobi, or simply happy to attend from home, it was also a way to economise for the gallery.
Fortunately, the way Circle Art Gallery had set up their online auction, it was user-friendly. Once you opened up the live web page with a split screen, you were able to keep track of all the important information.
On the left-hand side of the screen were the auctioneer, the numbers, including the estimated final bid, and the bidding process happening in real time.
On the right was the bio of the artist with his/her artwork carefully photographed by James Muriuki.
As soon as the auctioneer hit the final hammer of sale on a piece, the next work immediately flipped into place.
Last Tuesday from 6 pm, if an art lover had been vetted and approved, they could watch nearly every relevant detail of all 57 lots or works of art being sold at the auction.
The works came from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Eritrea, Seychelles, Rwanda and Mozambique.
The auctioneer, Chilson Wamoja from Antique Auctions did his job effectively, stating every bid so that the process continued efficiently.
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He was not pushy, but he definitely was intent on moving the numbers forward to ensure each painting or sculpture was bid upon to its maximum potential.
For instance, when it was clear that at least two parties were bidding aggressively for one item, he did not push either way.
He just let the bidding flow freely, enabling works by artists Peterson Kamwathi, Beatrice Wanjiku, and E.S. Tingatinga to ultimately earn Sh1,643,600 for Peterson’s painting named 'Kadhi Court', Sh1,995,800 for Wanjiku’s 'Yellow Memory', and Tingatinga’s 'Pangolin' painting for Sh2,113,200. E.S. Tingatinga's other painting 'Batin Tree' was bought for Sh1.76 million.
And while it momentarily felt as if the bidding process had cooled down by the time Mr Chilson reached artwork number 50, there was a surprise run on Sane Wadu’s 'Jesus Bird' which ultimately sold for Sh2,230,600, making it the stunning star sale of the night.
Some artworks did not initially find buyers, but prospective buyers could easily make an offer after the auction.
This year, several pieces sold after the auction closed.
“Ultimately, it is up to the artist if they wish to sell their work at the offered price,” said Danda Jarolmjek, Circle Art’s founder and curator.
This year's auction garnered Sh30.5 million, making it the most successful edition of the art auction to date.
Last year, art buyers spent Sh 23.18 million at a similar auction. The 9th Circle Art Gallery East Africa auction defied pandemic fears of slow spending on collectables.
Just like this year, interest was high in E.S Tingatinga’s paintings. For instance, his Untitled ‘Rhino’ sold for Sh 3.17 million last year.
Ms Jarolmjek established the Contemporary and Modern East African Art Auction in 2013.
The auction represents both a primary and secondary market with works coming directly from the artists as well as from owners of art.