Vintage works: Auction proves art a wise investment

Rosemary Karuga’s terracotta Mother and Child art piece which sold for Sh1.4 million ($9,509). PHOTO | WILFRED NYANGARESI | NMG

This year’s Art Auction East Africa in Nairobi was a highly anticipated affair. Not only was it the first time the auction would be held at the Circle Art Gallery space in Nairobi’s Riara Road, from where it was hatched by the founder of both the gallery and the auction, Danda Jaroljmek.

In previous years, Danda had taken the event to hotels, but having recently moved the gallery to a new and more spacious arena, it made sense to bring the auction home to Circle as well.

“We finally have a large enough space to hold the auction right here,” said Danda who now has been able to not only curate the auction but also hang it with time and space to spare.

This year’s auction also saw a mix of 45 paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures come to Circle Art Gallery from the secondary (or resale) market for vintage East African art.

“That is what we had expected the auction to eventually become,” she noted, adding that collectors have various motives for delivering their art for resale. For some, it may simply be that finances are tight at home, and whereas the collector might or might not have bought art for its investment value, (given that art invariably accrues in value over time), its sale at the art auction would bring in some much-needed cash.

What many collectors realise is that rather than trying to sell a work of art by themselves (and making a pittance in the process), they can earn a whole lot more if their art sells at auction.

If it does not sell, that is another story. And several works did not sell. In some cases, we saw how fickle the market can be. For instance, why did Ancent Soi’s Feeding Flamingos painting sell, but his Hat Maker painting did not? And why did Rosemary Karuga’s lovely collage get ‘bought in’ while her sculpture sold for far more than the top most ‘estimated value’ of her work implied?

Her sculpture’s sale is what the audience who attend auctions in person come to watch. It is the ‘bidding wars,’ fought between competing bidders whom professional auctioneer Chilson Wamoja has to field. His job is no easy task since he has to watch those who are fielding online bidders as well as those on the phones and audience members who may also be part of the ‘war’.

Fortunately, there were pieces that either exceeded the estimated value or sold above the minimum estimate. For instance, Yony Waite’s impressionistic Migrants End artwork sold for Sh1.53 million ($10,096), above the higher estimate suggested. So did the Tanzanian artist Francis Imanjama’s Giraffes, which fetched Sh392,874 ($2,583). And so did another Tanzanian, David Mzuguno’s Jungle by selling at Sh696,465 ($4,579). He too exceeded expectations.

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Art during an auction at Circle Art Gallery along Riara Road Nairobi on November 15, 2023. PHOTO | WILFRED NYANGARESI | NMG

Of course, Richard Onyango’s I Love Africa painting of himself with his beloved Drosy sold for more at Sh714,261 ($4,696) than expected. Onyango and Drosy, especially are epic characters in Kenyan coastal art.

The gallery was expecting both ES Tingatinga paintings to excel in value after previous bidding wars surprised everyone who witnessed the ferocity of that bidding. Neither painting exceeded the maximum estimate of Sh2.28 million ($15,000); but both sold for up to Sh2.14 million ($14,088).

Another one that did not quite go over the top was Shabu Mwangi’s painting. His Bedsitter painting did not reach the suggested maximum estimated value of Sh760,500 ($5,000). But it did sell for Sh678,518 ($4,461), which came pretty close.

Two other sales that exceeded expectations were Ugandans Livingston GK Nkata’s Namanwe Forest painting at Sh624,978 ($4,109) and not Sh532,350 ($3,500) and Fred Mutebi’s A Dream at the Pealing Place for Sh428,617 ($2,818) and not Sh304,200 ($2,000).

Ultimately, it was the two sculptures that most dramatically exceeded expectations and vindicated the value of both the artists and their works.

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Chilson Wamoja, Auctioneer, Operations and Marketing Manager of Antique Auctions during an art auction at Circle Art Gallery along Riara Road Nairobi on November 15, 2023. PHOTO | WILFRED NYANGARESI | NMG

Rosemary Karuga’s terracotta Mother and Child sold for Sh1.4 million ($9,509). And Gakunju Kaigwa’s Kisii stone Chai Motto went for Sh1.17 million ($7,748), not the Sh608400 ($4,000) anticipated.

There was a sigh of relief, especially after Kaigwa’s bidding war since there were several buybacks before his sculpture’s success.

The artworks at the auction came from Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, South Africa and Kenya.

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Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.